A handful of influencer initiatives that have cropped up over the past several months suggests awareness of a larger need for regulation of the overall industry. The question is: Who will regulate influencers?
The multibillion-dollar influencer industry has gone largely unmonitored since its inception a decade ago. In 2017, the Federal Trade Commission attempted to establish guidelines for influencers and marketers promoting products on social media, but the agency has struggled to enforce its own guidelines in the midst of the proliferating influencer world. In February, the FTC solicited public feedback on its influencer guidelines, an announcement that seemed to reveal how out of touch and ill-equipped the agency is to keep up with social media’s rapidly evolving landscape.
A nonprofit organization called the American Influencer Council launched in June with a five-point game plan that includes lobbying the FTC to adhere to, promote and improve its Endorsement Guides. AIC membership is invite-only or via nomination by two current members, according to its web site. Danielle Bernstein, formerly a member of the council, is also the founder of the Global Creators Community, an online resource for influencers that launched this summer.
The formation of both of these organizations is symptomatic of a lack of standardization and enforcement of how influencers should promote products online. But industry experts believe the responsibility ultimately lies outside of the influencer community.
“Because social media is constantly changing, how influencers project information is going to continue to change, too,” said Candace Marie, a social media consultant who oversees social media for Prada in America and teaches at Parsons School of Design. “It comes down to the social media platforms [to] regulate influencers.”
Platforms could start by “cleaning out” fake followers and bots, Marie said. She proposed a tool that can differentiate between gifted items and paid campaigns. She added that social media platforms should take action when influencers and brands violate their policies by issuing warnings, taking down posts and deactivating accounts.
Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok and other social media platforms have “a duty” to prevent the spread of misinformation, Marie said. The topic of misinformation is particularly timely during the coronavirus pandemic and forthcoming 2020 election season.
“When it comes to COVID-19, voting and election season, I can’t even fathom why would not the platforms be all hands on deck in regards to information that’s being fed right now,” she said. “[If] I was fed some information, hypothetically, [and] it was wrong, if you take that information down, I’ve already been fed the misinformation. What are you doing to re-inform?”
Jasmine Gray, founder of influencer marketing and management agency Image Is Everything, said she is “not 100 percent sure there’s a need for stronger regulation” as much as there is a need for greater enforcement of existing influencer policies. Gray contemplated whether too much responsibility is currently placed on influencers rather than the brands that sponsor them.
“There’s a responsibility these brands are supposed to uphold,” Gray said. “Are they checking content before it goes live? No. Are they enforcing the FTC guidelines like they’re supposed to? No. My gut feeling is they know what they’re doing, but they want to get their message across.”
There is ultimately a fundamental lack of incentive for anyone — brands, influencers, social media platforms, outside agencies or otherwise — to regulate the influencer industry. Put simply, there is more money to be made by not regulating it.
“What unfortunately a lot of our country prioritizes is money,” Gray said. “I don’t see any immediate influencer regulations coming about and I don’t see a way to actually regulate the influencer industry outside of putting more responsibility on brands. If we really want to point the blame, if we had to point fingers, we need to look at the brands.”
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