I Can Be Who I Want to Be!

by Harley Hashtroudi 

Introduction

Social media is growing rapidly and the effect it is having on consumers is becoming more significant than ever before and thus becoming more important to companies (Patel 2015). The boom in social media usage has resulted in the phenomenon, Generation C, known as the content generation. This generation is not made up of a specific demographic but in fact based on consumer behaviour and is a mind-set/attitude. Generation C are empowered by technology and search for content and creation (Nielsen 2012). Additionally, trends around the world and especially the UK are resulting in healthier lifestyles and achieving body appearance goals (Gagliardi 2015). These forms of trends, such as “lean in 15”, have thus further impacted the body ideals, body dissatisfaction and self-perceptions of Generation C. Self-perception consists of a number of factors such as sociability, physicality, intelligence, self-worth and morality (Messer & Harter 2012). Body ideals are the internalization of a desired appearance (Thompson et al 2004), and body dissatisfaction consists of a negative evaluation of one’s own body (Clement and Lowe 1996). Additionally, these trends are created and further implanted into the minds of social media users via social media influencers. These are social media personalities who influence social media users through mass reach, relevant content and engagement (Smitha 2014).

The topic area of body dissatisfaction, body ideals and self-perception has been heavily investigated, with many sources looking into the effects of traditional media on these variables and especially in magazines (Bell & Dittmar 2011; Tiggemann 2014; Harrison & Hefner 2014; Hefner et al 2014). This research does, therefore, not account for social media and thus ignores Generation C. Social media is a highly relevant platform for this generation in terms of body image and self-perception due to the ease of engagement with brands and social media influencers it offers (Pollard 2015). This engagement then results in a bond of intimacy between the influencer and the consumer (Horton and Wohl 1956). Additionally, the majority of previous research focuses on adolescent females with little focus on males. I believe males are equally influenced by social media influencers in terms of body dissatisfaction, body ideals and self-perception as many adolescent males are becoming ‘gym addicts’ due to the pressures of social media (Yates 2016).

The purpose of this paper was to investigate the effects attitudes towards social media influencers, as a result of using social media, has on Generation C’s bond of intimacy, body ideals, body dissatisfaction and self-perception as well as measuring the gender difference for these variables.

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I Can Be Who I Want to Be, photographer: Payum Pourzadeh, model: Anastasia Moraites

Follow Anastasia Moraites’s Instagram account to get advice around fitness and perfecting your body: @anastasiamfitness (https://www.instagram.com/anastasiamfitness/)

Social Media

Social media is a vast and rapidly growing online platform that possesses a large range of offerings. It can be described as a communication tool or, “the collective of online communications channels dedicated to community-based input, interaction, content sharing and collaboration” (Rouse 2015). Social media are the online means of communication, conveyance, collaboration and cultivation among interconnected and interdependent networks of people, communities and organisations enhanced by technological capabilities and mobility (Tuten & Solomon 2014). It involves people having conversations online. “It is not a fad; it’s a fundamental shift in the way we communicate. It’s transparent, inclusive, authentic, vibrant and consumer-driven” (Kagan 2008). The rapid growth of social media correlates with innovation in mobile and tablet technology as social networking sites are a way of using your computer, tablet or smartphone to connect with other people in order to share views, news, knowledge and ideas, and also to build friendships (Roxby 2014). This growth and power of social media cannot be underestimated and is expected to continue to revolutionize personal and organizational communications and interactions worldwide (Ngai et al 2015).

Social media consists of a variety of sharable information formats such as social networking sites (Facebook), creative work sharing sites (YouTube and Flickr), collaborative sites (Wikipedia), and micro blogging sites (Twitter) (Mangold & Faulds 2009). Social networks consists of many social pages with the most popular consisting of Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, as seen in figure 1. In terms of body image, the variety of social media platforms explained by Mangold & Faulds (2009) suggests that Generation C are exposed to potentially damaging content in a number of formats such as images and videos.

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Figure 1. Social network site use, source: Mintel 2015

Facebook continues to dominate the social and media network market. Almost three quarters of Internet users aged over 16 have used the network in the past three months. The network is most popular amongst 16-24-year-olds, with 85% using the network (Mintel 2015), and this highlights the significant role this social platform plays in the lives of Generation C. YouTube, a video-sharing site, is another major social influencer platform and has seen significant growth in usage, with penetration up from 40% in February 2014 (Mintel 2015).

The growth of social media is supported by statistics with Millenials, who are a major component of Generation C, reported to spend more or equal to 16 hours a week online with 96% of them having joined a social network (Kagan 2008). Facebook and Instagram play a significant role in Generation C’s lives. Instagram specifically can be highly significant in terms of body image as this is an image focused platform. Additionally, high social media use increases the chances of being exposed to damaging content, and 92% of teens report going online daily, including 24% who claim they go online ‘almost constantly’ (Lenhart 2015). When investigating specific social media format popularity between genders, female teens are found to use visually-oriented social media platforms more than males. For example, 61% of female teens use Instagram compared to 44% of male teens (Lenhart 2015). This could suggest that there is a slight gender difference in social media consumption.

A feature that distinguishes contemporary social media technologies from conventional mass media is interactivity. Social media allows consumers to converse with others who they wouldn’t usually or even communicate with a brand. In a way, this interactivity creates a virtual bond/friendship between one user and another (Eveland 2003). Consumers consume social media content in order to socially interact and meet people with similar interests (Ko et al 2005). In a recent study, 88% of respondents reported that they use social media for social interaction (Whiting & Williams 2013). This virtual bond between one user and another can be described as the bond of intimacy between and influencer and a user and it is this relationship that the author aims to explore further. The interactivity of social media allows consumers to build these virtual relationships with social profiles who expose a huge range of photos that have been edited and altered to produce a more desirable look. In a recent report by the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on body image, the MPs’ report said pressure to look good had pushed up cosmetic surgery rates by nearly 20% since 2008 (Roxby 2014). These pressures to look good are amplified via mass mediums such as social media that also result in the forming of social media trends. The year 2015 saw major social trends regarding image such as; ‘The Dad Bod’, ‘#DropThePlus and the ‘No Makeup selfie’, all of which would have caused a change in motives regarding image amongst some users (Tomchak 2015). This consumption of socially desired appearances via social media along with social trends all affects the psychology and motivations of Generation C, and this is why social media must be investigated further as a variable impacting their body image and self-perception.

Conceptualisation

Using theories of mass communication (Morgan et al. 2009): the theory of Para-social interaction (PSI) (Horton and Wohl 1956) and the Uses and Gratifications theory (Blumler and Katz 1974), the following conceptual model is proposed (figure 2):

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Figure 2. Conceptual Model: I Can Be Who I Want to Be

The model above proposes the following list of hypotheses:

H1: Attitudes towards social influencers have an impact in the extent to which individuals use social media (two directional).

H2: Attitudes towards social influencers affects the bond of intimacy as a result of using social media (two directional)

H3: Attitudes towards social influencers will negatively impact participants body dissatisfaction

H4: Attitudes towards social influencers will negatively impact participants self-perception

H5: Attitudes towards social influencers will have an impact on the internalisation of body ideals as a result of using social media (two directional).

Methodology

The research design consisted of a mixed method approach, qualitative and quantitative. This involved a netnographic enquiry followed by an online survey. The sample of the netnographic enquiry included seven social media influencers, whereas the survey was targeting Generation C, a content generation.

The social media content analysis included an investigation into:

  • Who the most significant influencers are in relation to body image, beauty, image or fashion,
  • How consumers/social media user respond to their posts and how strong is the social relationship/bond of intimacy,
  • What content is most effective (image, video, posts).

The social media platforms investigated were those that have been highlighted as key platforms for Generation C in existing scholarly work, and these include; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.

The sample used in the netnographic study included three social media influencers for females and three social media influencers for males. These social media influencers included Millie Mackintosh, Natalie Suarez, Kayla Itsines, Joe Wicks, Justin Livingston and Dwayne Johnson. Additionally, during the analysis a further male influencer, Cristiano Ronaldo, was found to have a highly significant influence on Generation C and was thus included. The selection of the influencers was based on the number of followers and content posted i.e. was it relevant content (fitness or health/body image, fashion, image).

Following the netnographic study on social media I have gained quantitative data to measure the impact social media has on body image and dissatisfaction via a survey. The themes/structure of the survey included; basic demographic information, social influencer identification, social media uses, favoured social media platforms and formats (Facebook & images etc.) as well as bond of intimacy, body dissatisfaction, body ideal and self-perception measurements. Download full list of measures.

The sample of the survey was social media users who are over the age of 18. They were selected at random using convenience sampling as the survey was posted online via social media pages, as this is a key online environment for the core audience. There was a minimum of 100 participants selected in order to increase generalizability and representation. Participants were asked to share the questionnaire on their social pages also, therefore, creating a snowball effect in order to reach out to a larger sample.

The data analysis consisted of both an analysis of the quantitative research as well as the qualitative research. The findings of the netnographic research were used to analyse specific questions regarding social media formats and themes. This included an analysis of the sentiment of responses to social media influencers’ posts as well as data analytics in relation to social influencer followers, reach and passion. The research analysed produced evidence of influence these profiles have on social media users as well as a categorization of the social influencers’ posts/content within the Social Media zones (Tuten & Solomon 2015). The quantitative data was analysed using IBM’s SPSS Statistics Analytics software and the analysis of this data provided insights into the relationships between attitudes towards social influencers, as a result of using social media, and the effects on body ideals, bond of intimacy, body dissatisfaction and self-perception.

Findings

Netnographic Study

The netnographic study offers insight into the world of social media influencers and highlights the bond between these influencers and their followers. The enquiry aimed to answer the following research questions:

  • What is the most effective social media format (image, post, tweet etc.) for causing body dissatisfaction and body ideals?
  • Is there a significant difference in the effect social media has on girls’ body image and self-perception vs effect on boys’ body image and self-perception?
  • Is there a specific social media platform that has the most significant effect on body image/ideals and dissatisfaction?

In order to answer these questions I originally analysed the profiles of six influencers that included three males and three females. Number of social media followers and sentiment towards posts were taken into account in order to determine the strength of the influence the social media influencer had on followers. During the analysis I discovered high passion scores and a mass number of social media followers amongst another influencer, Cristiano Ronaldo, and thus he was included in the enquiry.

Figure 3 illustrates the number of social media followers, sentiment score, passion and reach of each social influencer. Sentiment score is the ratio of mentions related to the influencer that are positive to those that are negative. Passion is a measure of the likelihood that individuals talking about your brand will do so repeatedly. Reach is the measure of the range of influence the social media has. It is the number of unique users referencing the influencer divided by the number of mentions related to the influencer. The higher the reach means the more people that are talking about the influencer.

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Figure 3. Social Media analytics summary

The sentiment scores of all influencers are highly positive meaning that there is little negativity surrounding the influencers and the outlook is that they positively affect followers’ lives. Additionally, gender doesn’t seem to affect sentiment as the scores vary for all influencers, no matter the gender i.e. the scores aren’t much higher for female influencers than for male influencers. Joe Wicks, also known as the body coach, records the strongest sentiment score (25:1). This influencer mainly posts content regarding healthy foods and posts images of followers weight loss progress. This could suggest that weight loss motivation and encouragement significantly provokes positive attitudes towards influencers. This assumption could be further supported by the sentiment score of Kayla Itsines (20:1), who also posts content regarding weight loss and body transformations.

Gender difference doesn’t seem to impact the passion scores for each social media influencer, with the exception of Millie Mackintosh who records a much higher score than the other influencers. However, this social influencer was previously a leading character in a popular British reality TV show and this could thus increase the bond of intimacy between her and her followers resulting in a stronger passion score. This could therefore, suggest that additional mediums such as TV, can result in stronger bonds of intimacy amongst influencers and followers. Dwayne Johnson also appears on TV globally and is a Hollywood actor who has a heavy social media presence. His passion score is similar to the other influencers’ but his lower passion score could be a result of having a much bigger social following.

Figure 3 also illustrates that Millie Mackintosh recorded the biggest range of influence as she reaches 138% of followers, meaning that she also influences non-followers. When looking at a volumes perspective, Cristiano Ronaldo actually influences the highest number of social media users, reaching 53% of his multimillion followers. Both these influencers possess a strong TV presence, therefore, suggesting that additional mass media mediums such as TV increase influence over social media followers.

Key themes that came out of the netnographic enquiry for all influencers included; positivity, motivation and inspiration. Positivity was evident in most content via comments such as, “this guy is great”, and “wow well done”. What was also discovered was that users tend to frequently tag/mention friends in their comments, so that they could also see the content and thus creating a snowball effect. Motivation was evident mainly surrounding fashion and fitness content. This can be seen via comments such as, “I need to join the programme now” and “I want this dress”. Inspiration was another key theme and was also evident across most content such as fashion and fitness. For example, fashion content provoked responses such as, “love your outfits all the time. You’re my fitness & style inspiration”. This is illustrated by figure 4.

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Figure 4. Millie Mackintosh fan’s reaction to fashion content

Fitness content provoked inspired responses such as, “amazing, definitely going to change my diet now”. Body ideals, a key variable within this research, were highly evident amongst Millie Mackintosh’s fitness content. This content created body ideal related responses such as, “why don’t I look like this?” and, “my body goals”. Additionally, body dissatisfaction related comments were evident in this influencer’s content such as, “this puts my progress to shame”.

The influence of each social media influencer is clearly evident on all their social media pages, and the bond of intimacy is clear to see. The content they post provokes inspiration and motivation responses. For example, Justin Livingston simply followed one of his followers and this resulted in the following response: “oh my god am I dreaming? My favourite blogger has just followed my Instagram”. This response provides clear evidence of bond of intimacy on social media.

Additionally, a further investigation of social media was made via the author to analyse modelling (Bandura 2009), with a focus on the social media profiles of known role models and idols. Therefore, the best profile to analyse for a male influence was Cristiano Ronaldo’s, who recently became the most followed athlete on social media with over 200 million fans (Connelly 2016). The influence and bond of intimacy was highly evident with many fans mirroring the influencer’s content by uploading their own content consisting of near identical appearances and styles. The passion score of Cristiano Ronaldo was near enough identical to that of Millie Mackintosh and therefore, this influencer could be classed as a role model and idol for females. Evidence of influence, bond of intimacy and mirroring exists through followers posting very similar content to the influencer, which consists of fashion items that this influencer promotes. This is illustrated by figure 5.

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Figure 5. Influence of Cristiano Ronaldo and evidence of mirroring

The social media influencers all possess similar social media footprints, and the author has thus categorized their content and activity into the following social media zones: Conversing, publishing, commerce and entertainment (Tuten & Solomon 2014). Social media platforms are evidently significant mediums to converse with fans/followers. As a result of the netnographic enquiry, the author found that the most significant platform for conversing is Twitter with all influencers responding to mentions from followers. However, it is clear to see that frequency of response rate correlates with number of followers as the influencers with relatively fewer followers tend to respond more frequently than the influencers with more followers. Additionally, conversation mainly revolves around influencers responding to questions regarding the influencer’s recently posted content and this is especially the case for health and fitness related content. Due to the ease of sharing content on social media and the access to a mass audience, many of the social media influencers used the platforms to share links to their personal blogs and websites. This was especially the case for fashion related content and was most noticeable amongst Justin Livingston, Natalie Suarez and Millie Mackintosh. When investigating the most frequently used platform for publishing it was evident that Instagram was the most popular. This could be due to the nature of Instagram being mainly image focused, with influencers regularly posting images of their styles with an image description guiding followers to their external blog/website. The netnographic enquiry discovered that commerce was a key purpose for the activity of social media influencer’s, with the exception of Dwayne Johnson. All the influencers represent their own brand, whether this be fashion or fitness related. Instagram was a key platform exploited and content consisted of influencers such as Millie Mackintosh promoting her fashion range and fitness coaches such as Joe Wicks promoting his healthy cook book, which is illustrated by figure 6. Commerce motivations are clearly evident and it has recently been reported that the social media influencer Joe Wicks turns over £1million a month (Brannen & Barns 2016). Additionally, brand endorsements also existed amongst the content posted by influencers. For example, Cristiano Ronaldo is an influential representative for many brands such as Nike Football and Armani underwear and thus the influencer’s content consisted of some promotion for these brands.

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Figure 6. Joe Wick’s use of social media for commercial benefits

The social entertainment zone encompasses channels and vehicles that offer entertainment opportunities such as virtual worlds and gaming websites (Tuten 2013). There was no evidence of social entertainment amongst all influencers.

The netnographic enquiry provided insight on the behaviour of both social influencers and their followers. It provided an insight into the themes of content and responses, and brought to the attention of the author many other variables to consider. However, despite the social media landscape consisting of other significant variables such as buying behaviour/stimuli and inspiration, no changes were made to the conceptual model. I conclude that the most effective social media format for causing body dissatisfaction and the forming of body ideals was image based content, with Instagram being the most influential platform. This is evident through comments on the social influencers’ Instagram content such as, “my body goals”, “this puts my progress to shame”.

When analysing the difference between the effects social media has on males’ and females’ body image and self-perception, I came to conclusion that yes there is a difference, but it is not majorly significant. The netnographic enquiry highlights that sentiment and passion scores are very similar for both genders, but the difference exists in the themes and emotion of the responses. For males, responses to body image mainly consisted of blunt/short and positive comments such as, “wow well done”. Whereas female responses tended to be longer and more complimentary, e.g. “I love your outfits. You’re my fitness and style inspiration”. It was evident that body image motivation did not differ amongst genders, as both males and females responded to content with motivated comments such as, “I need to join the programme now”, and “amazing, definitely going to change my diet now”.

Finally, when analysing individual social media platforms I conclude that in terms of effects on body image/ideals and dissatisfaction, Instagram is the most effective platform. This is mainly due to the nature of the platform being highly image based and all influencers included in the sample used this platform most frequently to share images of their body training progress as well as their new fashion outfits and styles. This platform therefore, sparked the largest response in terms of body ideals and dissatisfaction.

Survey

The total number of respondents of the survey was 157 with only 35 being male resulting in a mean average of 1.8, which edges closer to a score of 2 that represent females. The mean age of respondents edges towards a score of 2, which represents 22-24 year olds. However, the median age demographic and the one that holds the highest number of respondents are the 18-21 demographic.

Figure 7 represents overall results for the hypotheses testing.

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Figure 7. Overall results of hypotheses testing

The survey provided insight into a number of areas regarding social media usage and attitudes towards social media influencers. The key correlations included the relationship between attitudes towards influencers (ATT) and bond of intimacy (BOI), as well as bond of intimacy and body ideals (BOID). The results also revealed moderately significant relationships between bond of intimacy and social media usage (SMU), and body ideals and self-perception (SP). The insight gained from these correlations opens up a number of topics to be discussed.

One of the key aims of the research was to investigate the difference in significance of social media usage and attitudes towards social media influencers between males and females as the majority of previous research focuses solely on young females. It is believed that exposure to thin ideals in the media results in model identification for young women, and this identification results in body ideals and body dissatisfaction (Bell & Dittmar 2011). Further research into body dissatisfaction shows that it occurs due to different factors for males and females. Knauss et al (2007) found that young males recorded increases in body dissatisfaction due to pressure from the media, and young girls’ body dissatisfaction was a result of internalization of body ideals, but these were formed as a result of the pressures from the media. Despite it being the most significant factor in body dissatisfaction for males, it is still believe that young females feel greater pressure from the media overall to match these body ideals (Wilksch et al 2006). It is thought that media itself plays a less important role in the lives of males than it does females, and thus the promotion of body ideals is less important to males (Vincent & McCabe 2000). The majority of empirical evidence reveals that body dissatisfaction and body ideals are more common and have great significance amongst females, however, the regressional analysis of this study shows that gender does not moderate the relationship between attitudes towards social media influencers and social media usage. This study reveals there is no significant difference between genders in terms of social media attachment and bonds to social media influencers. In fact, males show a near equal attachment to social media compared to females.

The findings of this study reveal that social media usage was irrelevant in terms of body ideals and only moderately significant in terms of bond of intimacy. This is in line with the work of Ferguson et al (2014), who found that social media and TV consumption resulting in exposure to thin ideals was actually insignificant in terms of body dissatisfaction and that in fact, it was peer pressure that resulted in body dissatisfaction, body ideals and eating disorders. Additionally, it conflicts with the findings of Chrisler et al (2013) who suggest that model comparisons as a result of TV and social media content resulted in greater body dissatisfaction and body ideals. In relation to bond of intimacy, the findings show that social media usage is moderately significant. It is attitudes towards social influencers that are the leading factor in determining bond of intimacy. This supports the findings of Horton & Wohl (1956) who suggest that actors create TV ‘personalities’ and the attitudes towards these personalities are coached by the media in order to strengthen the bond of intimacy.

The insight from this study is that social media usage is irrelevant when investigating impacts on body ideals and only moderately significant in terms of bond of intimacy. This could suggest that instead of targeting specific mediums in order to reach Generation C, it may be more beneficial for marketers to instead target personalities, such as social media influencers. The power of social media influencers is thought to be highly significant in the business world as they can become powerful endorsers who shape consumer attitudes through the various uses of social media (Freberg et al 2010). The significant relationship found between attitudes towards social media influencers and bond of intimacy supports the fact that these influencers play a significant role in the lives of Generation C. These influencers can therefore, be highly beneficial for brands in terms of awareness, image and perception (Cisnero 2014). It is the attitudes towards these influencers that drive action amongst consumers such as Generation C, where as it is the reach and following of them that drives awareness (Baer 2015).

The survey provided insight into the impact attitudes towards social influencers has on Generation C’s body ideals, body dissatisfaction, self-perception and bond of intimacy, as a result of using social media. It also provided further evidence that no significant gender difference exists in terms of attitudes towards social media influencers and social media usage, and that in fact males and females share very similar behaviours in regards to social media.

Whilst the netnographic provides insight into Generation C’s behaviours regarding image and fashion, the survey further provides evidence regarding their body image (BOID and BODIS). It can be seen via the correlations table, that attitudes towards social media influencers has a positive relationship with body ideals and body dissatisfaction, however, these are insignificant correlations. Therefore, this suggests that attitudes towards social media influencers, as a result of using social media, are in fact not a core determinant of these body image variables. Unlike previous research (Ferguson et al 2014; Veldhuis et al 2014; Nabi & Keblusek 2014), this study does not analyse additional factors that may impact body ideals, body dissatisfaction and self-perception.

Conclusion

Overall, the research conducted aimed to provide evidence to either support or disprove the proposed research objectives and questions. These included determining whether a significant difference existed between genders in relation to the effect social media has on body image (body ideals and body dissatisfaction) and self-perception. The netnographic enquiry provided evidence that females produced more emotional responses to social media influencers’ content but the bond of intimacy was equal between the genders. This was further supported by the survey that concluded there was no significant gender difference in social media usage and attitudes towards social media influencers.

Additionally, the research aimed to give insight into whether any specific social media platforms were most effective in terms of body ideals and body dissatisfaction to Generation C. The netnographic enquiry provides strong evidence that Instagram was a highly effective platform in terms of body ideals and body dissatisfaction, with comments such as, “why can’t I look like this” and this represents the internalization of body ideals.

Furthermore, the netnographic enquiry provides evidence for determining the most effective content format for causing body dissatisfaction and internalization of body ideals and as expected this was image posts. This further explains why Instagram is the most effective platform in terms effects on body image as it is mainly image focused. Finally, the survey examined the correlation between social media influencers and body ideals and body dissatisfaction in order to determine whether they are a core determinant. The results of the survey suggests that the relationships between these variables have a positive correlation but they are in fact insignificant, and thus core determinants of body dissatisfaction and internalization of body ideals could be a result of other factors.

Both the netnographic analysis and survey offers insight into the social media landscape, attitudes towards social media influencers and the impact on body ideals, body dissatisfaction, self-perception and bond of intimacy. The netnographic analysis also highlights how social media is exploited for commerce, publishing and conversing motivations as well as highlighting what platforms are best for different purposes. Both research methods aimed to investigate gaps in existing literature such as analysing Generation C and males, not just young females. It also aimed to investigate the impact of a modern medium, social media, and not just traditional mediums such as TV and Magazines.

Access and read further sources used for this research.

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