The comment section of the final image posted to Sophia Cheung's Instagram account, a photo of her kneeling in a white bikini beside a yellow boogie board, is filled with comments mourning her death.
Cheung, 32, of Hong Kong, was reported to have died after she fell off a cliff during a hike with friends on Saturday. It's unclear how many followers she had at the time of her death; her account has posthumously ballooned to more than 21,000 and growing.
It's also unclear whether Cheung, who is alleged to have died while taking a selfie, had any brand deals or whether any of the content she posted was sponsored. But reports of her death labeled her as an "influencer" for her carefully curated Instagram account. While her Instagram followers posted their disbelief about her death, users on Twitter seized on the "influencer" label to reply with snide remarks and callous celebrations.
"New influencer just dropped," a person joked in a reply to a tweet about Cheung by the New York Post. The tweet was liked more than 5,700 times.
The comments about Cheung's death highlight the often toxic attitudes toward influencers, who tend to be women, that are shared in many corners of social media and stoked by mocking accounts like Influencers in the Wild and blogs like GOMIBLOG, which stands for "Get Off My Internets," which disconnect the content creators from their humanity. Celebrities and those adjacent to them have long been on the receiving end of criticism that sometimes veers into the vicious and cruel, but influencers, especially those who experience tragedy, can be the targets of internet bullying, harassment and hate. As in many other digital industries, such abuse has long been an issue.
"It's still a career field that I think is not relatively understood," Brooke Erin Duffy, an associate professor of communications at Cornell University, said of being a social media influencer. "Like any feminized career field, it is seen as frivolous and therefore not taken seriously and not valued."
Harassment of internet personalities and influencers increased during the coronavirus pandemic as more people communicated through digital spaces during lockdown.
"People call me ugly, fat, fake. They say all sorts of horrible things about me and my family and threaten us, and you feel powerlessness against it, because they keep making new accounts," Erim Kaur, a lifestyle and beauty influencer, said last year.
Experts say there are many reasons influencers are mocked online and are often the targets of cruelty in times of personal tragedy. Some of the key factors are the disconnect people experience when they're commenting online, the anonymity of the internet and a fundamental misunderstanding of content creation and the work that goes into it. But a major component of the attitudes toward influencers, Duffy said, is gender-specific hatred directed at women.
While there are many men in the influencing sphere, they tend to be branded as "content creators," a term derived from and associated with YouTubers, while women are typically labeled "influencers," a term taken from the marketing industry and adopted by those on platforms like Instagram, Duffy said.
"This ideal to be visible is experienced very differently by women, by people of color, by the LGBTQ community, and women in particular have very different experiences of life on the internet," she said. "They are judged and they are scrutinized, and the standards to which they are held are much harsher."
Duffy said the subjects of public shaming accounts like GOMIBLOG and Influencers in the Wild tend to be women. However, she said, her research has found that the critics, in many cases, also tend to be women.
Along with the gendered harassment some influencers experience, experts brought up the notion of "unearned fame," the idea that such influencers are perceived as having no real talent or as making no real contributions to society, when, in reality, they are an arm of the marketing and advertising sector that has capitalized on the digital space.
"These insecure, jealous trolls, who are jealous of unearned fame and attention and are upset by that kind of attention, those kinds of people existed before, but they haven't had access to the media in the same way that they do now," said Scott W. Campbell, chair of the communication and media department at the University of Michigan.
Because influencing is relatively new and not well understood, there is also general skepticism, which is especially prevalent among older generations, experts said. And there is general mistrust when it comes to the authenticity of what influencers post, even when they deal with tragedy, because so much of their digital presences are curated.
Emily Hund, research fellow at the Center on Digital Culture and Society at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, recalled an example when Instagram influencer Tiffany Mitchell posted photos in 2019 after having been in a motorcycle accident.
The images of Mitchell lying on the side of the road while being tended to appeared glossy and professional, and in one of them, a bottle of Smartwater looked as though it had been carefully placed as if it were part of a brand deal. Smartwater confirmed to BuzzFeed News that it did not have a brand deal with Mitchell.
Commenters tore into Mitchell, claiming that the accident had been staged or that it was part of the debunked brand deal. Mitchell maintained that the accident was genuine and that she wasn't aware that photos were being taken until after the fact.
"The space is so thoroughly commercialized now that followers have increasingly become cynical," Hund said.
The fundamental distrust of influencers — the veil of doubt about whether the self they share online is authentic — has led some online to revel in any misfortune that befalls them, experts said. Even when, like Cheung, one dies under tragic circumstances.
"That's a strange and unique form of cruelty for a person to feel compelled to comment in such a cruel way about someone's death," Hund said.