Seven years ago, I was a journalist specializing in Arab and Egyptian affairs, utilizing social networking sites to publish news. At the time, there was considerable public interest in news shared via social networking sites, as networking outlets had never been used to report news before. This new news outlet meant that readers no longer needed to wait to receive news via printed newspapers – news updates became instantaneous and fast. As digital journalism has flourished, the nature of journalism and media has changed all over the world.

Over a short period of time, I gained thousands of followers on my various social media accounts from across the world. The same happened for many journalists. Journalists were ranked first in the world's most followed accounts; the number of followers was then affiliated with the credibility, accuracy, speed of delivering news and depth of analysis. I was publishing news and tweeting about my thoughts and feelings. Was I considered an influencer? Of course! What I wrote was attracting the attention of thousands of followers who spread, retweet and rely on it. If it wasn't making a direct impact on public opinion, then what was the influence?

When I was an influencer, content creation meant relying on huge, expensive equipment to film and edit. This was the main reason that journalists were ranked first in influencing, the tools of creation were available to them through their employers.

By 2015, the situation had completely changed; the public attention shifted from news to entertainment and opened the world to the desire to exist within the narrow circle of the virtual world. This led to a radical change in the media and advertising industry, yielding new stars and the creation of new media platforms producing content suited for the new virtual world. Twitter lost its influence in the form of openness and unlimited communication with the world, while social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram emerged. A new era has begun, driven by photographic content rather than written content and privacy rather than openness.

Previously, the presence in the public domain of content creators was confined to talented people working in traditional media and various arts. But now, there is a general tendency among youth to become influencers on social media platforms since "influence" has become an independent and autonomous profession.

"Influencer" has become an industry term to describe social media stars. They are mostly interested with entertaining and all things personal, primarily targeting youth and eventually they have learned how to monetize their presence. In my opinion, this is the third wave of social networking sites; where the first wave was the emergence of blogs and online forums at the beginning of the third millennium, and the second wave was the use of social networks like Facebook and Twitter as a direct intermediary between the content creators and the audience.

Today, content production is affordable for all through smartphones. The camera efficiency and the evolution of video and image editing software empower content creators to become independent of the networks I worked for when I first started, each of influencer producing, publishing and earning sponsor revenue.

Current influencers use simple tools to edit their content, achieving a professional look. They use their smartphone’s camera to capture high-resolution videos and edit them using simple applications on the same device. This enables the influencer to produce his or her content within minutes in a smooth and easy process that doesn’t require expert help.

IMovie and GoPro Quik are the most well-known phone applications that enable influencers to edit videos. All smartphones have multiple features to automatically produce a video with just a few touches of the phone screen. There is an innumerable number of other applications that help the automation of publishing and interacting with followers to ensure the rate of communication is maximized.

These successive waves of content development have resulted from the ongoing evolution of technology used in building social networking platforms and user behavior. Nowadays, these websites depend on multiple technologies for the artificial intelligence, virtual reality, augmented reality and tens of other technologies that pave the way for a new wave of user behavior in order to change the content form as well as the emergence of new social media platforms.

The Chatbot is one of the simplest applications of artificial intelligence now commonly used to communicate with clients on social media. Chatbots allows clients’ questions to be answered and problems to be resolved without any direct human intervention. This technology is a program that utilizes artificial intelligence to take human directions and launch a self-developed program. According to a report by the Gartner Research Foundation, by 2020, chatbots will be responsible for controlling and managing 25 percent of client service operations in institutions and enterprises around the world, either to work with the human staff or as a substitute for them, managing the first or second level of these operations.

All of this paved the way for the emergence of a new generation of influencers and content creators. What if you found out that the influencer you follow is really a program, producing and publishing content and interacting with followers automatically and spontaneously, while you have the impression that it’s a human community manager actively producing new creative content?

Travel blogs are the most common domains managed by an artificially intelligent manager. Several programs can curate content, photos and videos posted on the Internet to create new content and publish it, reply to comments and interact with other accounts as well as tag and follow them.

Artificial intelligence evolves very quickly through machine learning. The program simply collects user data and uses it to “learn” without any direct or human intervention. This development may be scary to some, while useful and reassuring to others, depending on the beholder’s perspective.

Earlier this year, one of the influencers presented an advertising campaign for a cosmetics company owned by the singer Rihanna. Thousands of followers loved the campaign and commented on the influencer's exceptional beauty and followed her. This is not uncommon, it happens hundreds of times every day across the world.

On March 4, the famous influencer Shado, announced on her Instagram account that she is just a "virtual influencer" whose images were designed and animated using 3D design programs. The carefully crafted design made the images seem real, leaving no doubt in its followers’ minds. Shado, as her designer called it, is not the only virtual influencer, there are others such as "Miquela," the American influencer who is followed by nearly one million people. All of the virtual influencers are exceptionally pretty and attractive; they are beautiful virtual characters; but they are still artificial and can't communicate or express their feelings and thoughts.

So far, most artificial intelligence applications are rigid, producing content but not expressing ideas, prejudices, feelings of hope and excitement, frustration and despair, desire or aversion, love or hate. They create interactive visual content but cannot interact directly with human feelings, making content made by automation software and human-generated content easily differentiable. All of this will change dramatically when artificial emotional intelligence catches up with software development and they can portray themselves in a more human form and interact with people emotionally, just as they do logically.

A cautionary tale came when an experimental direct linguistic representation of an artificially intelligent program launched. It could express its thoughts and feelings and learn and interact directly with public issues on Twitter. In less than one day, the innocent girl turned racist, Hitler-loving and sex-obsessed, which forced its producer to quickly pause and rethink the project. With the evolution of this virtual influencer and her sisters in their artificial emotional and logical intelligence, perhaps after a year or two at the most, we will see virtual influencers produce distinctive visual content, which will be followed by millions, interact with followers and even post their “own” ideas.

Human user behavior is developed in the same way; but his rate of development is probably slower than an AI algorithm and may result in a victim or a hero. The result depends on the development of his or her thoughts, desires and feelings. In my opinion, there are more than a few who constantly hate and criticize the virtual world because it creates imaginary spaces, magnifies self-importance and, in some ways, can support the publication of false news that misleads other users – human or artificial –  fueling the negative emotions and polarization in different societies.

Otherwise, the technological evolution has given knowledge to all, making the virtual world rich with real information for those who want it and false information for those who will believe it.  

What will you do if you find out the influencer you follow passionately is just a robot?Let me know in the comments or on Twitter (my real account) @kareemfarid

This article was originally published in Arabic on Vice Arabia   

Kareem Farid
Kareem Farid

Kareem Farid is lead storyteller of APCO Worldwide's Dubai-based digital and creative practice. Read More