why do we still not trust influencers?

The new guidelines might not help anything.

by Jake Hall
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12 February 2019, 10:03am

It’s no understatement to say that Instagram influencers are the pariahs of the digital age. Over the last twelve months they’ve been accused of sucking the joy out of travel, destroying the environment and essentially ruining your life, but the backlash intensified last month due to a Netflix documentary which pinpointed supermodel influencers as the main reason thousands flocked to the ill-fated Fyre Festival. Of course there were other factors that led to the festival's downfall -- a dangerously mediocre leader, abysmal cheeses sandwiches and a series of soggy, piss-soaked mattresses amongst them -- but the blank orange squares posted by powerful influencers where what lured many to a remote island. These squares were ads, but they weren’t disclosed as such; in response, there’s been a crackdown on the ‘rules’ for influencers.

In a nutshell, these rules are there to ensure we’re not being lied to; that we won’t buy a phoney face scrub on the recommendation of a paid influencer that secretly loathes it. They exist across all forms of media -- it’s why we see the small ‘P’ sign to disclose product placement in television and on music videos, and it’s why magazines are largely open when it comes to mentioning they’ve been paid for coverage. So these new rules are fair, right?

Not according to everyone. Social media blew up after the new guidelines were launched, with some complaining that they feed into the idea that all influencers are money-grabbing narcissists willing to lie to us for the sake of a new bodycon dress. Media outlets linked the rules directly to the nuclear-scale shitshow that was Fyre Festival, and in the recent past it’s been highlighted that brands are lying to us, too -- a third of them don’t disclose partnerships. So, what does this all mean?

The first, most obvious fact is that influencers are modern-day celebrities. Just as Paris Hilton used to (and probably still does) accept literal thousands of dollars to rock up to a club in iconic looks and drink bottles of free Moët, Instagram stars can similarly command wads of cash for flexing online and plugging a company in the process. From Nando’s black cards to Fashion Nova-filled wardrobes, the perks that come with being a big-name influencer are pretty damn tempting. The problem is that we often don’t see the gifts changing hands, so we tend to think – or at least advertising bodies think we do -- that the endorsements are genuine. When a Love Island alum is dressed head-to-toe in PrettyLittleThings, do we assume it’s by choice, and not because they’re being paid fistfuls of cash to look incredible? Hashtags like #AD and #GIFTED are meant to be commonplace, but the Fyre disaster proved that they often aren’t. It’s this lack of transparency that the new rules are aiming to crack down on.

In some ways, more understanding is obviously needed. Plenty of us millennials are facing the prospect of being freelance creatives, or of making money from social media without really having a clue what the hell we’re doing. There’s no real advice on how to profit from Instagram, so for Sara Tasker -- author of Hashtag Authentic -- the rules are necessary. “Many influencers are young people with no formal qualifications,” she explains, “and there’s a lot of noise and very little guidance out there, but the rules absolutely reflect a level of frustration with some influencers’ content.”

To put it simply, we’re all struggling with the rise of social media and what it means for today’s society. Articles explain that millennials are wrestling with selfie dysmorphia, and that our self-esteem and mental health more generally are plummeting due to social media. How many of us pretend we have our shit together online while we’re crumbling in real life?

One of the main accusations levelled against influencers is that they exacerbate this. When blogger Scarlett London posted an ad for Listerine in which she had tortilla wraps stacked up like pancakes to create her perfect ‘breakfast’ post she was roasted online, and even more recently she was one of several bloggers singled out as frauds in a scathing, now-deleted Medium post (archived here). London defended herself online, but the intention of the anonymous investigation was clear -- to prove that social media is inherently disingenuous.

But this isn’t true across the board. Not all influencers present shiny, highly-curated lives online; some are distinctly human, and they’re all the more beautiful for it. Body-positive accounts in particular attract thousands of followers desperate to see themselves represented, usually because their bodies are either erased or ridiculed in mainstream media. Naturally, this discrimination is still rife within the influencer industry -- Stephanie Yeboah last year took to Twitter to dunk on brands that ignore black influencers when they’re not stereotyping them.

The new rules make no differentiation between these accounts, and as a result they risk punishing influencers reliant on trust with their audience. We all know the celebs hawking dangerous detox teas are doing so because cash is being thrown at them, but we tend to expect more humanity of smaller influencers -- as a result, the new guidelines are likely to affect them more.

“I think there’s a mistrust of influencers from people who don’t follow them,” explains Albertine Sarah, commissioning editor of social media magazine Blogosphere. “It’s an external judgement of the industry from people who can’t wrap their heads around how (and why) some people are able to make six-figure salaries without following a ‘traditional’ career.” In other words, there’s a societal assumption that influencers don’t really do anything, hence the influx of articles explaining what it’s ‘really’ like to be an influencer. But many are working incredibly hard.

We might live in an increasingly digital world, but the assumption that all influencers are lying to us about paid partnerships and tricking us all into false standards of perfection aren’t exactly fair. Megastars are abusing the system by refusing to be honest with us, but smaller influencers are being subjected to disproportionately harsh regulation as a result. If there’s one thing we’re good at nowadays it’s spotting an #AD when we see one, but it tends to be the smaller influencers that have to be careful about which brands they support and promote gifts from. As a result, they’re forced to consistently prove their ‘authenticity’.

Stars aren’t immune, either -- musical powerhouse and flute queen Lizzo recently faced backlash for modelling in a campaign for Khloe Kardashian’s Good American, but why was she held accountable more swiftly and more severely than other celebrities? The answer is simple -- we turn a blind eye to the stars we already deem untrustworthy, and we let them off the hook as a result. Being an influencer doesn’t mean you’re inherently disingenuous; instead it means you’re tapping into a viable income stream to stay afloat in an increasingly unstable world. Regulators might be struggling to keep up, but in the meantime it’s worth remembering that not all influencers are self-interested liars hellbent on eroding your mental health.