Millions of people could have been deliberately influenced by Russians on social media, without even knowing it.
No, this isn’t another article about election meddling. The Russians in question here are Murad and Nataly Osmann, a couple of young Muscovites who have carved out a living by travelling the world and posting their photographs on Instagram using the hashtag #followmeto, according to the Daily Telegraph UK.
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Murad and Nataly are bonafide “influencers”, you see. The word derives from the Old French influentia, “to flow into” or “influx” – which feels apt, considering the number of influencers to have flooded social media in the past few years. It’s a major industry. On Linkedin, there are 142,971 results for the search “influencer”. “Travel writer” has 16,628, for comparison. Google Trends shows online searches for the word “influencer” soaring since 2016.
Of course, companies teaming up with individuals for their social clout is nothing new. The first influencers weren’t tweens or gamers but rather the royal family; their official endorsements were used on products like Josiah Wedgwood and Sons’ pottery and chinaware as early as the 1760s.
Actors and athletes were next, appearing on trade cards slotted into cigarette packets in the late 1800s. Then television came along and anyone with a grain of fame was being tapped up by companies for their influential endorsement.
But what’s different about today’s social media influencers is that their endorsement is a primary, not secondary source of income. In the case of travel, the influencer can all-but guarantee their bubbly personality and/or photogenicness (often both) will inspire their followers to visit a recommended hotel, restaurant or holiday destination.
Unsurprising, then, that what most travel influencers have in common in their output is a pervading positivity. And presumably this is not a huge challenge, considering Stephanie Abrams Cartin, the co-founder of Socialfly, revealed in a recent edition of GQ that influencers with a following of 500,000 or more typically charge brands between £4,000 and £10,000 for a single Instagram post promoting their product, and £7,000 to show up at an event.
This is surely the best job imaginable. At least, that was what I had been led to believe before I spoke to travel influencer Clare Menary, and the #followmeto duo Murad and Nataly Osmann (via their marketing assistant: they have a team of seven working for them).
The Russian couple are the vanguards of the travel influencer trade. Since posting a photograph back in 2011, of Nataly leading him towards a graffitied wall in Barcelona, Murad Osmann has amassed over 4.5 million Instagram followers. Nataly has a million of her own, and their combined account @followmeto has over half a million.
Their formula is simple. Nataly, with back to camera, leads Murad to the most beautiful sights around the world, holding his hand as she goes. Since 2011 the handholding phenomenon has appeared in various ads and in April 2016, their trademark photo of Nataly appeared on the front cover of National Geographic.
But how long does it take to get that shot? “It actually takes quite some time to prepare for the shoots,” Murad tells me. “On the shoot the process can either be fast, but if we are at a location with millions of tourists or we take some time it can be around an hour. I always tell Nataly that it will take a minute.”
There are some other pressures, too. “Sleep is the first one,” Murad says. “You need to wake up very early to take a good shot and prepare for it very carefully.” He explains that there’s a demanding logistical side to the job, too: “You have to be ready to put all your energy into what you are doing. And you should be ready to live in airports, trains, buses and cars because it is all about moving from one place to another.”
One of their most iconic shots is from the Taj Mahal, but the picture seems suspiciously quiet for a destination that receives up to 70,000 daily visitors. “If you look at our picture of Taj Mahal, you won’t really be able to see people there,” Murad told me. “But because of the square format of the image – I cropped them out. Our friends were holding the crowd on both sides so that we could take the shot.”
Of course, photographers have been creatively tinkering with the artform since the first flash a camera bulb. But in the case of so-called influencers, you have to wonder whether this sets an unrealistic view of what travelling is actually like.
London-based Claire Menary thinks so. “Please note I hate the word!” she tells me, when I categorise her as an influencer. “Some do present travelling in an unrealistic way – they make some of the world’s biggest tourist hot spots look deserted or really play with the colours to make a place look more vibrant and colourful than it actually is.”
“Using certain editing tools – like playing with the exposure, shadows, contrasting or saturation for example – really can have a big impact on the final image,” she added.
“It’s important to remember that influencers only ever portray the best version of their lives on social platforms so there is an element of ‘un-reality’ to it,” she tells me. “But saying that, if you follow travel influencers who are in fact photographers who like to capture the daily life and scenes of a place, then I do think you get a more realistic picture.”
Influencers have been put in the spotlight in recent weeks, after Instagrammer Elle Darby contacted the luxury hotel The White Moose Café in Dublin asking for a free stay in exchange for social media coverage. The request prompted an angry response from the owner Paul Stenson, who wrote on Facebook: “It takes a lot of balls to send an email like that, if not much self-respect and dignity.”
Whatever your view, social media influencers and the #ad hashtag hidden at the end of posts will be around for years to come. But next time you go on holiday and question why you never look as glamorous as everyone else, or why your photographs seem to always have annoying people in them, remember – a hell of a lot of time and money went into creating the posts that influenced those expectations.