There’s an infamous tweet that goes like this: “Each day on Twitter there is one main character. The goal is to never be it.”
This week that character is an influencer named Dani Carbonari — known online as Dani DMC, a model and content creator with more than half a million followers across TikTok and Instagram. She was among a handful of creators from the United States who accepted a free trip to China from the fast-fashion behemoth Shein.
The company was founded in China over a decade ago, and though it still produces items there, Shein is now based in Singapore. Shein has become wildly popular thanks to very cheap prices and a breakneck production pace that allows it to stay on top of even the smallest of fashion microtrends. The company has been accused of sourcing cotton from China’s Xinjiang region, where forced labor and human rights abuses are widespread. (Shein has denied these accusations.)
The name is pronounced, “she in.” As in, “she in some very cheap clothing.” As in “she in trouble for those TikTok videos.”
This brings us back to Dani DMC. The influencers were supposed to tour the company’s factories and speak with workers. While technically they did so, what happened next was probably not what Shein had in mind.
In a video now deleted from her account, Dani DMC posted clips of a tour of Shein’s “Innovation Center,” a clean and well-lit facility. Dani DMC said that she “was able to interview a woman who worked in the fabric-cutting department,” and that the employee, whom we never hear from directly, answered, “honestly and authentically.”
Dani DMC, who describes herself in the clip as an investigative journalist, added that the worker “was very surprised at all the rumors that have been spread in the U.S.,” adding, “She told me about her family, her lifestyle, her commute, her hours.”
Another creator on the trip, Destene Sudduth, posted a video describing similar interactions. (My colleagues Jordyn Holman and Sapna Maheshwari spoke with a creator who also went on the trip, if you’re craving more details. )
“Most of them work, like, 8 to 6, and their commute is like 10 to 15 minutes, just like normal,” Sudduth said of her conversations with workers. (Carbonari and Sudduth did not respond to my requests for comment.)
Pausing here for a small reminder that Shein paid for and planned this trip. Trips like these are actually quite common in beauty, fashion and lifestyle spaces. (Tarte Dubai debacle, anyone?) Attendees on brand trips typically aren’t cut a paycheck, but the ethics are questioned when, for example, a creator later posts a glowing review of the very brand that footed the bill.
Online, the backlash to the trip was swift. Though many of the videos that the creators posted have been deleted, nothing online is ever really gone. Reposts of the videos, particularly Dani DMC’s, were immediately roasted on Twitter and TikTok.
When I asked for comment, Shein, in an emailed statement, said it was committed to transparency. “We respect and stand by each influencer’s perspective and voice on their experience.”
Dani DMC initially posted a video doubling down on her defense of Shein — that video has since been deleted — and in a more recent one, she apologized to her fans and said she had terminated her partnership with the company.
Online, people are accusing her of apologizing to save her own skin, angry that it took a backlash for her to realize why partnering with Shein might be a bad idea.
I can’t blame the internet mob. As somebody who has spent a lot of my career defending influencing as a legitimate career and a field to be taken seriously, the creators on the trip aren’t doing their peers any favors.
But the mob isn’t sharpening its pitchforks to come after every person who posts a Shein haul — a specific genre of video where creators will purchase multiple items from the brand and model them for their followers. Such energy, righteous as it may be, could probably be better served if fixing the fast fashion industry is truly the goal.
“Shein is letting these ladies be scapegoats, first of all. And the rest of us are following that lead, unfortunately, and allowing ourselves to not think critically about the real problem here,” said Michelle Gabriel, who directs the graduate program for sustainable fashion at Glasgow Caledonian New York College.
Even though the trip probably didn’t turn out as Shein had planned, there’s a grim silver lining for the company. Shein now has a face: that of half a dozen influencers who are all too easy to blame.
Here’s what else is happening online this week.
Death by Grimace Shake
In the past week, gory scenes with purple slush instead of blood have taken over social media. That goop is the Grimace Shake, a limited-edition milkshake released by McDonald’s to celebrate the birthday of the character, a mysterious, bloblike sidekick to Ronald McDonald.
TikTok users are really having fun with this one. They start each video like a regular food-review video, sampling the shake and wishing Grimace a happy birthday. Then, there’s a dramatic cut to a horror scene that Grimace is suggested to have in some way caused: Some people are becoming Grimace Shake zombies. Others have been stuffed into basketball hoops. (The Times spoke with several creators of these videos.)
Even with its gruesome themes, the trend is probably good for McDonald’s, Jared Watson, an assistant professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, said over the phone on Thursday.
TikTok users knew that McDonald’s was making a play for their attention, and they subverted the brand accordingly, he said.
But at the end of the day, they are still buying — and advertising — the Grimace Shake. “Even if they’re spoofing it, you can bet most of them actually tried the product,” Dr. Watson said.
— Callie Holtermann
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Callie Holtermann contributed reporting to this newsletter.