The race to be relevant in the psychedelic space has increasingly led to a new breed of pseudo science, click bait journalism, and social media influencers turning into psychedelic experts at an alarming rate. In an era where thought leaders are minted by social media metrics, people and platforms are conflating reactions with legitimacy. It’s a phenomenon that has swept into the arena of pop culture some time ago, where unknown and at times questionably talented artists are given record deals and breakthrough opportunities based off a single viral video.
And now the floodgates are open in the psychedelic space as well.
The psychedelic experts and thought leaders of tomorrow are one viral video away from a fully booked schedule of podcasts, panels, retreats, packaged products, and high priced promo teams pulling the strings on all of it.
To borrow from the cannabis industry – which the emerging psychedelic industry is doing heavily – take Dogg Face, for example.
You know the video: a bald cholo-looking man cruising on his long board to the song “Dreams” by Fleetwood Mac while chugging Ocean Spray cranberry juice in a contagiously carefree manner.
100 million + views later, and Dogg Face is one of the most successful influencers (read: thought leaders) in the cannabis space with multiple product lines, high profile brand endorsements, and Tommy Chong and Snoop Dogg collaborations under his belt. For the record, I really like Dogg Face and hope he continues enjoying the fruits of his success for many years to come. But the principle of an overnight celebrity turned advocate and authority hits differently when inevitably applied to the psychedelics ecosystem, in my opinion – and it’s hard to ignore the likelihood that the same thing is going to happen here.
With the rapid emergence of new psychedelic platforms, products and people looking for the next big market, the rules of engagement in this space will likely be dictated by who commands the most attention – at whatever cost.
“There’s no such thing as bad publicity” has been the PR honeypot of many up and coming public figures in our controversy and celebrity obsessed modern world since the beginning of pop culture.
Controversy generates clicks. Whether they know it or not yet, everyone has an opinion, and even the most reserved and empathetic individuals among us seem innately wired to react to polarizing dog whistles. The court of public opinion rarely arrives at an ultimate verdict. That’s what keeps the human narrative moving, as all good storytelling requires conflict. Social media influencers know this, and often create content specifically to generate debate and adverse reactions.
Imagine this scenario: a 22-year-old TikTok influencer with 10 million followers (who are mostly there to see prank videos) posts about a legal psychedelic experience they’ve had with blue lotus flower extract or kanna. They haven’t violated any TikTok community guidelines, and the video racks up 50 million views. Sensing an opportunity to take advantage of the momentum generated by the viral video, the PR team managing the influencer account reaches out to conferences, festivals, podcasts, magazines, network news broadcasts, and more – who have all been increasingly devoting coverage and airtime to the emergent psychedelics space, and (dare I say it) industry.
The press kit that goes out states that “Influencer XYZ” has 100 million views across social channels, has been mentioned in The Washington Post and Forbes, and has partnered with brands A, B and C – positioning them as a thought leader in the psychedelic space, even though the majority of their public profile and clout has been built 95 % outside of the space. The vast majority of their views and opinions on the psychedelics come from ‘downloads’ that they’ve had since discovering psychedelics, with little to no roots in legacy lineage practices or scientific substantiation. But that doesn’t matter, because the most important thing in their case is the perception of cultural legitimacy rather than the underlying body of knowledge and experience anchoring their views.
This example might feel overly speculative and hypothetical, but in fact it’s already happening. TikTok and Instagram are full of self-appointed psychedelic authorities promoting their coaching programs and unsanctioned plant medicine retreats in places like Peru, Costa Rica and Bali – with the more highly visible ones already making the rounds on podcasts and even on stage at conferences where they infuse their brand of viral influence into the psychedelic conversation.
While I recognize that there are arguably many legitimate “unsanctioned” plant medicine retreats that offer tremendous value and therapeutic potential to people who can’t legally or affordably access plant medicine therapies otherwise, there are a number of retreats, products, and “coaching opportunities” that are run by twenty-something social media influencers whose primary skill set seems to be exploiting the algorithm to rack up hundreds of thousands of views on their short-form content promotional videos.
This phenomenon extends to brands as well: Psychedelic Water raised over $3 million dollars after a successful viral campaign on TikTok. They now claim to be a leader in the “psychedelic space,” though the product contains no psychedelic substances. It is primarily targeted towards a young audience that is navigating much of their relationship to psychedelics via social media messaging.
Our algorithmically shaped and content obsessed world requires a never ending stream of fresh faces and opinions generating clicks and engagement. How a person arrived in a position of influence is rarely if ever questioned. Does anybody really care about the pedigree and historical arc of a public figure? The omnipresence of scandalous opportunists that populate the landscape of pop culture and the political arena seem to suggest that no one really cares how you arrive at your position of influence. They only care that you’re there, and that you can generate more views and clicks.
With the roadmap of the cannabis industry laid out for all to see, it’s unwise to imagine that anything different will happen with the rollout of a legal and regulated psychedelics industry. Whether or not this is “the morally correct way” for events to unfold is still out for debate in the court of public opinion – which is as divided as it ever has been, leaving a chasm big enough for influencers and clout chasers to skate through and assume the title of “psychedelic thought leader” in the multibillion dollar industry that’s rapidly being mapped out according to the highest bidder.