Virtual influencers are just that: virtual online personalities constructed by a person or a team of people. They aren’t controlled by an AI, usually, only their looks are CGI’d into a real image. The writing goes to their controllers.
They first really hit the news when Bermuda, a white, right-wing ‘influencer’, attacked and then hijacked a Brazilian-American ‘influencer’s’ account, Lil Miquela’s. The twist is that Bermuda and Miquela are both run by the same company. And neither actually exist as real people.
Trend-watchers have noticed influencers growing closer and closer to a theoretical point zero – the blandest possible creation of social media. She’ll be white or light-skinned, with mid-length or long brown hair. She’ll be pretty, and quirky, but not so quirky that she’s downright unusual. She’ll have average hobbies, maybe she’s a singer or dancer, and she’ll always be supporting topics that are hot but not too hot among their young audience. They aren’t trendsetters so much as wave-riders, and within these wave riders, you have Bella Poarch, Emma Chamberlain, Madison Beer, Charlie D’Amelio, and dozens of other, smaller ones that still dominate dance trends on TikTok and Instagram’s must-follow list.
A virtual influencer was bound to spring out of this environment. It’s absolutely scriptable!
Lil Miquela is in a unique position – she’s unfiction. She’s not a character in a story so much as an advertising campaign attempting to pass as a real person. There’s a missing layer of separation here – Miquela talks about the real world as though she’s the one experiencing it, which is understandably frustrating for any actual Brazilian- or Spanish-Americans trying to make it in the influencer sphere. Why are we letting what is ultimately an advertisement mix-and-match desirable racial traits to sell to people?
Supporting the sort-of-real Miquela is much less treacherous to fence-sitters than supporting an actual person of color. People of color may have disagreeable politics to their brand’s target audience, after all, but Lil Miquela is easy to control! Miquela doesn’t feel the need to defend herself or her politics online – and since she’s digital, most people won’t expect her to like they would if she was ‘real’, given Refinery 29’s reaction. She’s perfect, unproblematic, and unpolitical except for in ways that are popular, at which point her marketing posts include a shout-out to whatever cause the brand thinks she should support. Which makes those pictures with Bermuda funny in a sad way – she’s accidentally been written like a slacktivist. Speaking of which…
Isn’t it weird that a couple of people are puppeteering a teenaged, leftist, female character alongside a conservative Trump-supporting one? It’s one thing to make a VTube-style character modelled after yourself. That makes sense. It’s a one-to-one ratio of transmutable real-life experiences. However, using an avatar to talk about certain subjects without attracting criticism is shady at best, especially when you’re playing both sides of the field with a right-wing personality and a left-wing one. Lil Miquela doesn’t actually have any deeply-held convictions, otherwise Bermuda would have held them too. The two are play-toys to their company, who mashes them together to take pictures even though that reflects poorly on Lil Miquela’s self-proclaimed status as an activist. Two toys spouting arguments designed to be interactive, not accurate.
The initial creators were a team, a black man and a white woman. Why not make the influencer white or black to reflect actual experiences lived by the team? Easy answer: they did, but the other two bots they’ve made so far didn’t perform as well as Miquela on social media, so Lil Miquela gets the lion’s share of the brand deals (Bermuda’s politics and Blawko’s foul language may have sabotaged their respective launches… strange to not try again with the successful Miquela formula). Cosplaying as a Brazilian because their Brazilian character is getting more views than other ethnicities (especially the creator’s own) just feels wrong, right? Something’s not quite right there? American society doesn’t tolerate that out of real people, why is it letting it happen with Lil Miquela, who is still run by real people?
Miquela makes a lot of money for her creators without taking a cut for herself. She’s unrealistic competition. She’ll never get old, injured, or out of shape, unless those become popular, of course. She’ll never get bad lip fillers or die unexpectedly of an overdose. She’s perfect.
That’s the thing about digital influencers: they can’t say or do anything out of line without deliberate action from those behind them. Even then, if it’s a team, it’s easy to simply step back and say “we fired that specific writer for that post” without losing face as an influencer or as a brand, unlike human influencers. All of the reach, none of the accountability.
None of the support, either – when brands partner with a digital influencer, they don’t have to worry about that influencer being a messy, inconsistent human. The digital influencer can sign a contract and still be the same person a year later, including in age. The digital influencer only approves of political posts when her handlers know it’s “safe” among younger audiences. She’s not cutting-edge for anything that really matters, because the cutting edge is dangerous – her tech is the only new part of her.
And yet, despite being so perfectly bland in all the ways that matter, she still has controversy (beyond the whole Bermuda thing). It’s weird to say that a virtual influencer was, say, sexually assaulted – not only because that’s literally physically impossible, but because it’s a hot-button issue. They could say her experience was whatever they wanted it to be, but they found that a past of SA was more “relatable” than a past without SA. Lil Miquela is selling things, so as much as she’s an experiment, she’s a product. She’s unfiction. She’s a puppet wearing the face of a marginalized, traumatized woman to sell things to people who know they ‘should’ be supporting of this demographic but might find real people too extreme or icky. Lil Miquela is ‘safe’. She hasn’t been radicalized or traumatized by her experience because the outcome of her ill-fated fake Uber ride could be anything the writers wanted it to be. Real humans may suffer from PTSD, but Lil Miquela doesn’t have to. She can be perfectly, unrealistically well-adjusted. She has no past.
Meanwhile, Bermuda’s launch as a right-wing Trump supporter didn’t sell well, so she changed her views accordingly. People do this too, but the ploy is much more obvious when the image on-screen literally cannot have a change of heart without the puppeteers declaring that for her. And yet, she hasn’t been deleted and replaced with a new one, so obviously this is an experiment too – how long until people forget a virtual person said or did something problematic? Is it different than the time it takes for a regular influencer?
The CGI method is interesting, it’s a new take, but it’s not revolutionary. Many influencers are doing the same thing that Lil Miquela’s doing, just to a lesser extent. They photoshop themselves into oblivion, and use camera filters to make themselves look slimmer or curvier in moving videos. Big ones have teams of editors to do this for them; the Kardashians you see online look nothing like the ones in real life. They may as well be virtual. Lil Miquela is only new because she doesn’t have a human to superimpose over with the new image – she’s all picture, no person. CGI is cool. But is it revolutionary, when you think of her as just another edited person? She’s fake. She’s CGI’d. Her texts and posts are written for her. Whatever. All the big ones are in the same boat.
I really dislike Refiner 29’s take on the matter; the interviewer in their article for Bermuda says that the words these Virtual Influencers say don’t matter, because they’re not real. Remember, these aren’t AI, there is no coding to their personalities – that’s all handled by real people. Only the pictures are made with code. With that in mind, is it accurate to say that Bermuda’s politics don’t really exist, or don’t really lend credibility to the mess of misinformation Trump left behind? They aren’t real, and yet they are – otherwise brands wouldn’t be partnering with Lil Miquela left and right. They are still influencers, after all. Their words carry consequence. See, if Bermuda stepped too far into her right-leaning persona, and called someone a slur, there’s no way these online blogs would just shrug their shoulders and say, “Bermuda doesn’t exist, so she didn’t really say that. It doesn’t matter!” Like they’re doing now with her past statements on the right. Somebody said that! Somebody controlling her account still said that! It’s like blaming the racist jokes on Jeff Dunham’s puppet, not the man.
Refinery 29 is not enlightened for knowing these accounts are fake. They are not better than others for following her account as a joke – their views are still views. In the same way it’s gross to like Shane Dawson even ironically, it’s gross to say “I was only pretending I liked Bermuda”. Play along with the digital influencer, and you’re still interacting with it and giving it views, no matter how ‘ironic’ those views are.
Everything about Lil Miquela is decided upon for views. Does she like Boba tea? She does if it’s popular. Does she like the color green, or the color pink more? Which one does better in ad analyses? That’s how her team answers questions. A real person may lie, but they don’t lie to such a granular degree. They are, ultimately, a complete person by themselves. Miquela’s team decided she was Brazilian. They decided she was sexually assaulted. They decided she was a musician. They are her, but they wear her face to say things – don’t forget it.