As the WE Imbroglio keeps rolling along and picking up steam, there has been a pervasive, nagging sense of familiarity with some of what has transpired. As more revelations about the various WE organizations’ practices started coming out in the media, and as people expressed concerns that there was a generation of youth who were looking to become WE speakers rather than to do the actual work that WE espouses when it comes to poverty reduction and education in poor countries, it started to become clear that there is a broader story about how WE fits into influencer culture – and how the federal Liberal government in particular feeds into that whole.
When it comes to influencer culture and how it has metastasized into a kind of monster, there is no greater example than that of the Fyre Festival (and many of you will no doubt have seen the Netflix documentary Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened). In particular, I found a resonance with the notion that the festival was about using influencers to promote what was supposed to be an exclusive festival geared toward promoting a kind of lifestyle that appeals to a certain generation, and the kind of the voluntourism that WE offers, or in the way its updated mandate to “inspire and empower youth at home” attracts people to its WE Days. After all, there is as much about trying to build one’s personal brand that comes with attending an exclusive luxury festival as there is with using a WE trip that doesn’t do much for the community that it travels to, but which looks good on a resume, or using WE Days for the positive exposure – which WE did implicitly leverage its profile on.
In fact, WE was quite explicit in chasing corporate partnerships in that they reflected virtue that these companies would see, complete with market research that showed how much better these companies were perceived by youth when they associated themselves with the WE brand. The way WE also chased celebrities and used them to burnish their brands was part of this very same kind of influencer culture – having people like Idris Elba at their WE Day events was very much like an influencer relationship, where Elba’s brand gave legitimacy and credibility to WE, and in turn it reflected well on him that he was giving his time and profile to a charity whose goal was to empower youth. (This isn’t a criticism of Elba – the list of causes he is associated with outside of WE is legit impressive).
But it is because prime minister Justin Trudeau was a celebrity even before he was in the political realm that is precisely why this WE Imbroglio intersects with broader influencer culture. This is something that NDP MP Charlie Angus was getting at in his rather crass questions of Trudeau during the PM’s appearance at Finance committee last week – his sadness and disappointment that Trudeau didn’t see that the Kielberger brothers had carefully drawn him into their circle for their own ends (not to mention a known philanthropist like Bill Morneau, who would be a big donor to the organization). Angus essentially accused the Kielbergers of grooming Trudeau so that he could be useful to them, but this shouldn’t come as a surprise because the Liberals themselves tend to use many of the same tropes and mannerisms of influencer culture in their pursuit of public policy goals – the show of saying the right things even though they are not always quick to follow up with actions.
With the media attention that this imbroglio has put onto WE, a lot of questions have been asked, and a lot of former employees and volunteers have come forward with their own stories about what was going on behind the scenes, and we are seeing some of the WE organization starting to unravel – and the organization itself has started apologizing for its problematic practices (such as the fact that it is largely built on a white saviour complex) and needing to start to get back to basics, as their structures became byzantine and complicated. That spotlight has also gone to allege other activities such as employing tactics to manipulate Google search results to ensure positive stories about the organization were highlighted by algorithms so as to keep their brand value at the fore.
Much like how the Fyre festival unravelled as their “luxury accommodations” turned out to be surplus tents to house hurricane victims, and the five-star fare really being soggy sandwiches, revelations about how WE had planned to administer the Canada Student Service Grant – offering summer camps up to $25,000 in grants if they brought in no fewer than 75 eligible students, for example – are raising a lot of questions as to how they could possibly have been considered the only group capable of administering the program. But as Fyre had convinced hundreds of people that they were a legitimate festival that could deliver on its promises, WE had similarly convinced the civil service that it had this capability despite not having done anything similar in the past.
The appeal to influencer culture has a lot to do with where the Liberals went wrong on this and many other files. Because WE had managed to successfully convince Trudeau, Morneau and others that they were virtuous and empowering youth, it fell right into this PMO’s ethical blind spot, that so long as they think that they are on the side of the angels that they don’t need to think about the questions of conflicts of interest of other ethics rules, that an ex post facto apology is enough because the intention was pure. They are concerned with the appearance of doing good, and that the details will sort themselves out. But like Fyre, and as this WE Imbroglio has demonstrated, the details don’t just sort themselves out – and that problem will continue to happen so long as the same culture remains at the top of this PMO.
Photo Credit: CBC News
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