The Reddit pages that investigate influencers

March 25, 2024
NunAit, via Wikimedia Commons

In 2020, a young woman who asked to be called Anna decided to buy some hair supplements that she learned about from a social media influencer. The influencer, Danielle Bernstein, regularly posts about clothing and beauty on Instagram, and had claimed that the supplements transformed her brittle hair into thick, shiny brunette locks. Anna identified with Bernstein, and felt like she could trust her; they were both in their twenties, Jewish, and from the suburbs of New York. 

But as time passed, Anna didn’t see the results Bernstein had consistently been showcasing. She decided to look online for more information about the product, which is sold under the brand Wellbel. Searching the question “Does Wellbel work?” brought her to a Reddit page called “NYCinfluencersnark.” 

There, she discovered a stream of comments debating Bernstein’s claims about Wellbel’s effectiveness. And she learned something else: Bernstein had financial ties to the supplement company, something she didn’t always disclose in her posts. (She currently describes herself in her bio as an “advisor” to the company.) Anna was shocked. “It’s so frustrating to see, because there’s so many people who fall for this, myself included,” she told me. 

NYCinfluencersnark, with over ninety-five thousand members, is one of many “snark” subreddits, where people closely track the online activities of influencers. There is an “LAinfluencersnark” subreddit, which covers influencers in Los Angeles; one called “Blogsnark,” which covers the rest of the country; and even a few snark pages dedicated entirely to a single influencer. In their most basic form, the snark subreddits function as a place for people to vent their frustrations about the common irritants of the influencer industry: ceaseless product promotion, ostentatious lifestyle content, hyperfocus on appearances. They are not well moderated, and often get details wrong. And they can be cruel: posts on these pages sometimes engage in body shaming and bullying. 

But these snark subreddits provide another utility. At a time when the influencer economy is booming, snark subreddits are often the only places taking a close inspection of how the industry and its most successful figures operate.  

“What the internet has created is this unstoppable, ever growing economy with zero checks and balances. And so in that sense, there is a really dire need for these types of snark communities,” said Kat Tenbarge, a journalist who covers tech and culture for NBC News. “They’re on the front line protecting people and consumers from what these influencers are doing.” 

On snark subreddits, there are dozens of threads calling out influencers for less-than-honest practices. Mona Vand, for instance, is a wellness influencer who often posts about hair and skin care products, sometimes using the tag “Dr. Mona Vand.” Users pointed out that she is not a doctor of medicine, but a doctor of pharmacy—something she mentions in her bio but not in every post. In another case, users noted that lifestyle influencer Audrey Peters had posted to Instagram about how she tries to “blend” ads into her non-promotional content. The FTC requires that influencers “make it obvious” when they are endorsing products for companies with which they have a financial relationship. (Vand and Peters did not respond to requests for comment.)

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NYCinfluencersnark has paid particular attention to Bernstein. One post shows how, when promoting a probiotic supplement, Bernstein placed the “ad” disclosure text in the far upper left of her Instagram Story, resulting in it being covered by her brand icon. Another time, after Bernstein claimed on Instagram that her hair was growing two inches a month due to Wellbel, a user pointed out that this was unlikely because the average monthly hair growth is half an inch. (On its website, Wellbel has links to outside studies for individual supplement ingredients but doesn’t currently have any research studies about the actual product. Bernstein did not respond to repeated efforts to reach her.)

The subreddits also provide a rare window onto the murky finances of influencing. One user, who said they work at a “luxury retailer in client relations,” offered a detailed breakdown of how influencers can afford the expensive items they consistently display. They explained that in addition to retailers’ giving out products for free in exchange for publicity, an industry of “middlemen”—with names like the On the House Network—has sprung up to provide influencers with credit cards they can use on items they wish to promote. Another user described how luxury retail sites sometimes provide influencers with thousands of dollars in free spending. Yet another claimed that influencers often buy and return items they promote, while still earning a commission.

Sometimes, the subreddits can inform readers about online trends that they may not have realized were likely paid influencer campaigns. One recent thread pointed out the growing number of influencers showcasing their decision to freeze their eggs—a process that is both costly and medically invasive. “Treating fertility treatments like it’s another paid beauty ad…makes me rageful,” the user wrote.

In doing all this, Redditors are playing a role that mainstream journalists so far haven’t been able, or willing, to. Even though internet culture has become well defined as a beat, the day-to-day habits of influencers don’t garner much attention. “The kind of coverage you end up seeing is less about the ins and outs of influencers, and more about macro trends happening in their business world,” said Katie Notopoulos, a journalist who covers technology and business at Business Insider

Notopoulos used to cover the dubious world of celebrity social media endorsements in a column for BuzzFeed News in the mid-2010s. These days, she says, there are simply too many influencers for reporters to keep up with every detail of their advertising disclosures or financial connections. Attempting to cover it all, Notopoulos said, “would be like if someone dedicated news coverage to every car in New York City that had a parking violation.”

Even at their best, these Reddit channels are an imperfect solution. They rarely do more than surface-level investigation. Users don’t often dig up new information; instead, they practice a kind of open-source inquiry, finding things an influencer might have said once before but not regularly acknowledged in their public profile. “If it’s all happening in front of you on Instagram Stories, then anyone can go and screenshot a bunch of Instagram Stories and compile them. But to look into someone’s financial records or to call people who met this person, like, ten years ago—you have to have some journalistic skills to do that,” Tenbarge said. 

Just as often, the debate centers on superficial, even mean-spirited, critiques. In 2022, Tenbarge reported on the snark subreddit devoted to popular YouTuber and “internet troll” Trisha Paytas, which devolved into a campaign of extreme harassment. After the article was published, Reddit banned the group. “The trajectory these communities take is that they’re almost always going to become more negative over time,” Tenbarge said. 

Since her experience with Wellbel, Anna has joined the NYCinfluencersnark subreddit and now participates in the discussions. Still, she sometimes wishes she didn’t have to rely on an online forum to find out what social media stars don’t want her to know. “If there was a piece with trusted sources about various influencers not disclosing their financial interests, then that would be really interesting to me,” she said. “But there isn’t one, so I go back to Reddit.”

Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.