When I think of a social media influencer, I typically think of a young, white woman promoting skin care products and niche clothing brands to her 10,000 or more followers between posts about her glamorous life. I follow a couple of influencers, vaguely interested in the pseudo-fame that comes with having an Instagram platform and occasionally taking their book recommendations or recipe ideas. I associated these influencers almost exclusively with young people and direct-to-consumer brands until I stumbled upon an article about Brooklyn and Bailey.

Brooklyn and Bailey are twins who attend Baylor University in Waco, Texas. They have almost six million followers on Instagram. Their feed is filled with wholesome pictures of themselves in lakes and parks with “highlights” about dating, hair and clothes. Other than their unusually large number of followers, they fit my preconceived notion of Instagram influencers. However, they do have one unusual paid partner — Baylor University — which has paid them for one to two promotional posts per semester since 2017. Neither Baylor nor the women have said how much they get paid for this partnership, but with millions of followers, Brooklyn and Bailey are considered “macro-influencers,” a status that allows them to garner up to $25,000 per post for product placements.

It is likely that I never would have heard of them had they not recently contracted COVID-19. Brooklyn and Bailey want to make sure you know that Baylor has “taken every precaution” and that “it is NOT due to in person classes that this happened.” The post is not sponsored by Baylor, but the sisters seemed to have anticipated that people would have questions about where they contracted the virus, and that as paid emissaries, they would be best-off supporting Baylor’s policies. 

Schools want to sell an experience. That’s why they hire young, “cool” students to post on their personal Instagram or Youtube accounts. Because COVID-19 forced students to forgo most of the campus experience that they’ve been sold on, there is conflict. Brooklyn and Bailey got caught in the middle, getting paid to make their school look fun and inviting while simultaneously contracting a disease that makes the fun and inviting campus experience impossible. 

While Baylor may not be explicitly paying Brooklyn and Bailey to promote its COVID-19 safety plan, the University of Missouri is doing just that. The Missouri school contracted with an outside firm to hire up to six campus social media influencers to spread information about campus COVID-19 guidelines. The amount paid to each ambassador has not been made public, but Missouri paid the outside firm, Glacier, $10,300 for the project. 

The student ambassadors’ captions read like they were posted by the University of Missouri itself. “I've partnered with the University of Missouri to encourage the safety measures outlined in their Renewal Plan (available through the link in my bio!),” one post reads, later promoting the campus symptom checker app. Other student posts are slightly more colloquial, telling students “we gotta be safe” or including emojis.

Most of the Missouri students have between 1,000 and 2,000 followers, which is nothing compared to the reach of Brooklyn and Bailey, but still a sizable number of followers for what is an inherently local campaign. 

I can’t quite figure out how I feel about the practice of paying students for social media promotional material. On the one hand, at least before COVID-19, social media promotional posts were almost certainly more effective than the thousands of emails and brochures that college send to students during their junior and senior years of high school. Peer to peer marketing, especially for my generation, is an increasingly successful and common marketing tactic. As students who are usually only a few years removed from high school, undergraduates are likely to have high schoolers, who are prospective undergraduate students, following their accounts. 

On the other hand, as blogger Anne Helen Petersen points out, it is ridiculous that influencers get paid for promoting their school, but college athletes, who often promote their schools on national television, do not. NCAA regulations expressly prohibit schools from paying students for name, image and likeness activities, which includes social media. Additionally, students of color are regularly used in school promotional materials without compensation. To schools, these students prove that their campuses are diverse, welcoming places in much the same way that paid influencers do, just without payment. 

Paying students to be COVID-19 safety influencers seems different in that their target audience is primarily people who already pay tuition. It’s about behavior, not directly about generating future tuition revenue. But as cases spike in Boone County, where the University of Missouri is located, it’s hard not to feel like a couple of social media posts calling on students to wear masks and use the symptom tracker serves only to gloss over the severity of a pandemic potentially spreading across the campus and university community. The University of Michigan doesn’t pay social media influencers for promoting COVID-19 safety measures or otherwise, at least publicly. And why should they? During a normal September, Instagram would be flooded with thousands of unpaid students posting pictures of themselves smiling and dressed in head-to-toe U-M gear. This September, I’ve reflected on whether or not I want my personal social media feed to be an inadvertent advertisement for the University. In wake of the University’s botched responses to sexual violence in our community, disregard for the safety of faculty and staff and seeking an injuction against its own Graduate Employees’ Organization, I can not bring myself to post with pride about the Block ‘M’ anytime soon. Number of followers aside, personal posts about U-M are advertisements for a university I cannot in good conscience advertise right now. To my fellow students who may be tempted to post a cute picture of themselves in Maize and Blue: I get it. But free advertising for the University of Michigan? I don’t think so.

Jessie Mitchell can be reached at jessiemi@umich.edu.          

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