Alessandra Mazzini, known on Instagram as @fashionindahat, laughs off the death threats. She’s become used to reading them whenever she opens her account. Random men write that they’re coming for her or that they hope she dies. It’s clearly not how Mazzini imagined her life as a fashion influencer would go. To her, being active online was about posting outfits to promote her fashion brand, not advocating for reproductive rights or endorsing political candidates.
For young millennials and Gen Z Peruvians, 2020 was a year of political awakening. The country was one of the worst hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, leading ongoing political turmoil to spill over in November, when president Martín Vizcarra was ousted by Congress on unproved corruption charges. The impeachment, rejected by over 90% of the population, was seen by many as a parliamentary coup. Massive protests ensued. Peru went on to have three different presidents in the span of 10 days.
Mazzini found it impossible to stay on the sidelines after two protestors in their early 20s were killed by the police on November 14. Fashion and lifestyle vloggers who refused to acknowledge what was happening or explicitly stated their reluctance to address politics on their platforms — many felt it clashed with their personal brand — faced immediate backlash. One lifestyle vlogger lost almost 10,000 followers in five days.
For at least five days starting November 10, several influencers interrupted their usual content of trendy outfits, sponsored giveaways, and dance challenges to post videos of police repression or guides on how to deactivate tear gas canisters. After this brief blitz, most went back to their usual content after the interim president, Manuel Merino, who many saw as responsible for the impeachment, resigned on November 16, and the protests subsided.
A few influencers, however, chose to remain engaged, initiating conversations about politics, race, and gender with their followers. The desire to use their platforms in more meaningful ways has unleashed the wrath of the country’s far-right.
With her brash sense of humor and in-your-face online persona, Salan, or @salandela, as Andrea del Águila is known by her followers, is hardly representative of the ultra-feminine look and attitude that most female Peruvian influencers embody online. But over her past three years on Instagram, Salan’s decision not to tone down her personality has paid off: the Lima-based influencer has secured deals with several brands and has fronted campaigns for H&M. At 22, she possesses the acute self-awareness that distinguishes zoomers and is fluent in the language of authenticity that has replaced the more polished codes of millennials. “I am rather lucky that brands are all about ‘disruptive’ influencers now. They have embraced my political positions, even if they are controversial,” she tells Rest of World, careful to ironically air quote the buzzwords often thrown around at marketing meetings. The performance of authenticity might be a tricky business, but Salan seems to have squared that circle, finding no contradiction in describing her online persona as both honest and performative.
While she is currently celebrated online by teenagers and people in their early 20s as their main source of political and social commentary, Salan traces her own political awakening to the protests in November. Having attended the nationwide protests with some friends from university, she felt angry about the lack of engagement from other social media stars. After Mario Hart, a local reality TV star and social media personality, defended his right not to say anything about the political crisis, Salan replied scathingly in an Instagram story: “People are dying, and you think it’s more important to promote a brand? I’m done. I’m fed up. I’ve kept quiet about this whole influencer issue, but I’ve seen people bleeding under their masks, first responders vomiting while conducting first aid due to the tear gas. So don’t you dare say our opinion doesn’t matter: this is the first and only time it matters.”
Salan now uses her Instagram account to discuss everything from abortion to racism. The content is unrecognizable from her posts just four months ago. “I feel like I can make an actual difference,” she tells Rest of World. “Some of these kids have never thought about any of this before.”
Many on the right would rather not have these political novices’ agendas suddenly put center stage. Rafael López Aliaga, a burgeoning far-right national politician who is often compared to Trump and Bolsonaro, recently stated in an interview that raped women who get pregnant should be put in five-star hotels to prevent them from getting an abortion. After speaking out against him, denouncing how the criminalization of abortion harms mostly poor women, vitriol and attacks from López’s followers filled Salan’s Instagram feed. Her family was brought into the conflict, as anonymous users started sharing information about her parents’ work and income, in an attempt to discredit her by claiming she was privileged and entitled. “Some people have even started claiming that my Instagram is funded by the Shining Path,” she says, referring to the Maoist terrorist group that killed nearly 40,000 Peruvians between 1980 and 2000.
Both Salan and Mazzini, the fashion influencer, have hit back. “Sometimes I regret talking about such controversial topics, because it’s tiring to read horrible things about you, but afterwards I realize I have a bigger responsibility than just feeling good or bad,” says Salan. While Mazzini admits that she has lost some followers, she also doesn’t lose sleep over it. “If I go back to 10,000 followers, I’ll be OK with that. That’s not why brands chose to work with me.”
For a while now, companies have been favoring the less edited, more natural aesthetic championed by makeup brands like Glossier. But the trend toward authenticity is now expanding to include not just looks but political platforms. Younger generations of consumers, raised in the filter bubbles of social media, are thought to be more attracted to people they perceive as genuine than those that seem eager to please.
It’s a strategy that has paid off. Salan’s Instagram following has grown by over 70,000 since she embraced her vocal political persona. Mazzini tells Rest of World that, while she has faced harassment online, she has not felt unsafe out in public. No doubt this has a lot to do with Peru’s notoriously strict lockdown over the past year and could change in the near future. Influencers have made a business model out of monetizing the act of sharing their daily lives, including the places they frequent, potentially putting them at heightened risk.
“We have already seen cases where women in particular have faced not just doxxing but offline attacks and threats to their safety, after expressing their opinions online, particularly when it comes to feminism,” says Marieliv Flores, director of activism at Hiperderecho, an organization that monitors and promotes freedom and safety online. “People think that those doing the harassment are kids in basements with nothing to do but be online. This is not true. They are grown-ups, professionals, lawyers, men that work in the government and have access to private citizen information.”
Influencers also face the threat of losing their incomes. Mayra Couto, who rose to fame as one of the lead characters in Peru’s most popular telenovela, had to shut down her Instagram account for a month after a mass attempt at reporting it almost had it permanently suspended. A group called “Beba Army,” known for orchestrating anti-feminist, homophobic pile-ons, coordinated an attack in retaliation to her outspokenness against the sexual harassment she had received on set. After a couple of months, Couto’s line of work moved her to reopen her social media accounts, where she is still the target of harassment. Attackers have made her name a national trending topic on Twitter on an almost monthly basis.
Evidently not all influencers are the same. Some are younger and allowed to speak with the authenticity expected by zoomers; others are male and do not face the same level of harassment when discussing sex, feminism, or reproductive rights; wealthier influencers can afford to lose conservative sponsors or chose not to work with them in the first place. Salan recognizes that her financial safety net allows her to speak without fearing the consequences as much: “I have other sources of income. Most influencers don’t, so I understand they can’t be as political as I am. I am learning it is a privilege to be able to be at risk,” she says.
Marieliv told Rest of World that the harassment we see offline has moved seamlessly online. To make matters worse, she believed that “because a lot of online harassment is anonymous, there is often no effective way for the victims to seek help from the authorities,” adding that law enforcement is often ill-equipped to act. “How can we expect these women to explain to a male police officer with no social media presence that someone named after an anime character and with no identifiable photo is sending death threats to them?”