Towards an Ontology and Ethics of Virtual Influencers
In 2018, TIME magazine named Miquela Souza one of the 25 most influential people on the internet, despite the fact she is not a person at all. Miquela is the first digitally created virtual influencer. This paper provides an initial analysis of some of the ontological and ethical issues associated with the rise of virtual influencers on social media platforms like Instagram. Through a focus on Miquela, it is argued that while these fabricated identities may cause uneasiness at first, there is nothing morally significant that distinguishes them from natural, ‘real life’ influencers. But, far from ‘business as usual’, the inability to separate ‘virtual’ and ‘real life’ influencers raises important questions about the ethical construction of identity, and how this may affect the ongoing preservation of social values like trust in online spaces. The paper draws on literature in personal identity and agency theory to establish the ontological claim that there is no meaningful difference between Miquela and other ‘real life’ influencers, which leads to the discussion about ethical issues including moral responsibility and motivation, and transparency. As of May 2020, this appears to be the first peer-reviewed article theorising about virtual influencers. There are significant opportunities for further research, both in terms of how we should conceptualise these identities, as well as more empirically based social research into how to preserve social values like trust in online spaces.
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