For Once, Influencers Are Not the Worst People in the Story

Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were both charged in a college admissions fraud scandal on Tuesday. Photo: Getty Images

Disliking “influencers” is among my favorite pastimes. I’m sure many Americans agree with me. The actions of people who make a living posting inanities to YouTube and Instagram are usually so unconscionable, or so racist, or so ridiculous, or so dumb, or so ridiculously dumb, that dunking on them isn’t just deserved, but demanded. Logan Paul vlogging a dead body. Caroline Calloway charging $150-plus for fans to eat salad and take turns tucking a single orchid behind their ears for photos with her. Those married YouTube teens who “fled” Chicago and found themselves “homeless.” Dunk away. Hell, dunk twice.

So you can imagine that, when it was revealed that Tuesday’s college cheating scandal implicated an influencer, Americans got in their full dunking gear. In a nutshell: Full House actress Lori Loughlin and her husband, Mossimo Giannulli, have both been charged after they purportedly “agreed to pay bribes totaling $500,000 in exchange for having their two daughters designated as recruits to the USC crew team.” (Neither of their daughters had ever rowed.) Both of their daughters are now students at the University of Southern California and, when they are not in class, are influencers. The younger daughter, Olivia Jade, has nearly 2 million YouTube subscribers and sponsorships with brands including Sephora and Amazon.

Almost immediately, Twitter, seized upon Olivia’s tweets — like this one where she said she’d rather be filming YouTube videos 24/7 than studying — and old interviews. During the summer of 2018, before she headed off for her first semester at school, Olivia posted a video in which she said she didn’t know how she was going to balance her influencer career and school. “I don’t know how much of school I’m gonna attend but I’m gonna go in and talk to my deans and everyone, and hope that I can try and balance it all,” she said. “But I do want the experience of like game days, partying … I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know.” In her next video, she apologized for her ignorant comments after fans came calling with criticism. This was six months ago, before the saga of how she was accepted to said school in the first place would become national news.

Sure, Loughlin’s daughter deserved to be dragged — then. She maybe doesn’t deserve to be dragged now. Here’s the thing: It’s not at all clear that Olivia Jade was involved in the scam herself. The court filings, unsealed on Monday, indicate many of the kids involved in the scandal were completely unaware of their parents’ schemes. One parent (the unnamed spouse of Elisabeth Kimmel, who has been charged) talking with the man known as CW-1 in the documents, who helped found and run the organization that shepherded the kids into the universities, said a counselor at USC’s orientation had addressed their son as a “track athlete” and the kid was confused. (These calls were recorded via court-ordered wiretap.) The spouse told CW-1 the kid had no idea and wanted it to remain that way. The section about Lori Loughlin and Mossimo Giannulli does not indicate whether or not their two daughters were in on the scheme — but if they’re like most of the parents, Olivia was kept completely in the dark.

It’s one thing to be a teenage influencer electing to make content where you say dumb things on your own accord. It’s completely another to be a teenager in high school and think you’ve gotten into a college you applied to because your famous, wealthy parents — who actually paid your way in illegally — have given you no indication that isn’t exactly what happened. Only one of those things is Olivia’s fault.

This, of course, assumes the daughters did not know. It’s also pretty easy to imagine a world where the children implicated on Monday had some idea that their already powerful parents knew a guy who was going to help them get into college, but were completely in the dark about the criminal nature of the transactions. The same way their parents, and their wallets and contacts, have likely helped them their entire lives. If this turns out to be the case: Please, lace up and dunk away.

But right now, for maybe the first time ever, the influencers aren’t the worst people involved in the story. We’re knee-jerk dunking because we’re so conditioned to do so. But there are much better targets for our ire. Mock their parents, who didn’t know that the proper way to do this is to donate a wing of a dorm to the school. Mock the staff at the fancy institutions of higher learning who, for years, weren’t able to fully sniff out the fishy, like a kid getting admitted to play water polo from a high school without a water polo team. I mean, mock the kids, if you really must — but for having every advantage in life and still not being able to, or caring to, get good enough grades to gain above-board entrance to those institutions. Not for being influencers.

There’s a lot of talk on social media about “punching up” and “punching down”; the former is fine, the latter is cheap and best avoided. Influencers, with their brands built on the concept of just being people like you and me but reaching a wide audience, often appear to straddle this line. Or, at least, they — and their vocal fans — think they do. When Logan Paul vlogged that body, I talked to plenty of teenagers who told me he was “just being himself” and that he only did what any person in his position would have done. Caroline Calloway’s defenders screamed that she was just an “authentic” person trying to share her life with people when the Twitter mob grabbed its torches and pitchforks. Their fans don’t see them like they see politicians or traditional celebrities, because politicians and old guard stars don’t let fans into their lives 24/7 as though they are close, personal friends. (Beto O’Rourke’s Instagrammed dentist visit notwithstanding.)

So where does that leave Olivia? On one hand, she’s 19, famous, managing her own brand, and running her life like a business. On the other hand, she’s 19, and there’s been no indication she knew what was going with her parents. Should we really be devoting hundreds of thousands of words to every stupid and out-of-touch thing — of which there are … many — she’s ever said or done, even if those things happened in a vacuum where she was none the wiser to the criminal activities going on around her? Doing so seems to cheapen the much-deserved criticisms we lob at influencers when they do bad, dumb things. Paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy your kids admission into elite colleges — that would be a bad, dumb thing you should absolutely dunk on somebody for doing. Anybody know where I can find Felicity Huffman?

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For Once, Influencers Are Not the Worst People in the Story