By Dr. Alexandros Antoniou, Lecturer in Media Law, University of Essex
On 9 May 2022, the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (which is responsible for scrutinising the work of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and its associated public bodies, including the BBC) published its report on influencer culture, following the conclusion of its inquiry into influencers’ power on social media. Whilst acknowledging the benefits and the significant returns that influencer culture brings to the UK economy, the Committee emphasised that the industry needs to be given more serious consideration by the government. In the words of the DCMS Committee Chair Julian Knight MP, “as is so often the case where social media is involved, if you dig below the shiny surface of what you see on screen you will discover an altogether murkier world where both the influencers and their followers are at risk of exploitation and harm online”.
Devising a formal definition of the term ‘influencer’ is challenging, yet necessary in effectively enforcing rules and regulations. For the purposes of its report, the DCMS committee defined an influencer as “an individual content creator who builds trusting relationships with audiences and creates both commercial and non-commercial social media content across topics and genres” (para. no: 3). Influencer culture was taken to mean ‘the social phenomenon of individual internet users developing an online community over which they exert commercial and non-commercial influence’ (para. no: 1).
On the whole, the Committee found low rates of compliance with advertising regulation and concluded that employment protection has failed to keep up with the growth of online influencer culture, leaving those working in the industry unsupported and child influencers at risk of exploitation.
Four broad key issues pertaining to influencer culture emerged from the Committee’s inquiry, in particular.
Behind the camera
Despite the industry’s popularity, earning a living from social media influencing appears challenging. The report takes a look behind the scenes and goes beyond the superficial glamour and public perception, often involving paid-for holidays and free gifts. The report highlights that influencers face a range of challenges including hacking, impersonation, algorithmic unpredictability, mental health issues, online abuse, trolling and harassment. This appeared to be a bigger problem for women (compared to men) which is exacerbated by the “lack of developed support from the surrounding ecosystem of platforms, regulators, talent agencies and brands” (para. no: 15).
Transparency around pay standards and practice
Despite social media influencing being a rapidly expanding subsection of the UK’s creative industry, making a living in it remains difficult. Only few influencers appear to take the lion’s share of well-paid work, but many others struggle to make a living. Similar to other professions in the creative sector, many influencers classify as self-employed, which may mean that they experience uneven revenue streams and lack of employment protections (e.g., maternity or sick leave).
Moreover, the Committee points out the lack of payment transparency which has resulted in pay gaps between different demographic groups, affecting particularly influencers from ethic minority groups. Despite the fact that social media platforms understand the value that influencers bring to their business model, they do not always “appropriately and consistently” (para. no: 58) compensate influencers for the work that goes into producing content that attracts users.
The state of influencer compliance and gaps in advertising regulation
The scale of the sector and the volume of content generated across multiple platforms has outpaced the capabilities of UK advertising regulation. According to the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority, influencer compliance rates with UK advertising regulations remain “unacceptably low” (para. no: 74). Earlier in March 2021, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority had reached similar conclusions in its research on influencer ad disclosure. The advertising watchdog’s report revealed a “disappointing overall rate of compliance” with its rules requiring ads on social media to be clearly signposted as such (see IRIS 2021-5/7 for more).
Despite platform-specific guidance on ad labelling and training for influencers, brands and agencies, the messaging around the rules on advertising transparency still lacks clarity and disclosure requirements are practiced with a high degree of variation. New entrants to the influencer marketplace, who may not receive adequate support, are still unaware of their obligations under the advertising rules.
Children as viewers and children as influencers
Influencer content on social media is becoming increasingly popular with children, but the close bond children develop with online figures leaves them at risk of exploitation. Evidence suggests that children are more vulnerable to native advertising as they find it challenging to distinguish and identify. Current advertising regulation does not appropriately consider their developing digital literacy and sufficiently address the need for enhanced advertising disclosure standards that meets children’s needs.
Furthermore, influencers may be financially incentivised to share “extreme content” (para. no: 104) that includes misinformation and disinformation which may affect children and other vulnerable groups susceptible to harms arising from this type of content. Influencer promotion of unattainable lifestyles and unrealistic beauty ideals was flagged as a particular issue, especially because its consistent message (i.e., ‘what you look like matters’) and the damaging pressure it generates are likely to contribute to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, body dysmorphia and eating disorders. Currently, there is not enough regulation to protect children from this.
Concerns are expressed over the lack of protection for children participating in this new industry as successful influencers themselves (e.g., through gaming channels) and the impact this may have on their consent and privacy. Child influencers do not enjoy the same standard of protection around pay and conditions of work as traditional child performers in the entertainment industry. This is because child performance regulations do not currently apply to user-generated content.
In response to the issues identified earlier, the Committee makes a range of recommendations that call on the government to strengthen both employment law and advertising regulation. Specifically, the Committee recommends that the government: (a) conducts an industry review into the influencer ecosystem to address knowledge gaps; (b) develops a code of conduct for the industry as an example of best practice for deals between influencers and brands or talent agencies; (c) gives the ASA statutory powers to the enforce advertising standards under its Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing; (d) updates the same Code to enhance the disclosure requirements for ads targeted to audiences composed predominantly of children; and (e) addresses gaps in UK labour legislation that leave child influencers vulnerable to exploitation (including working conditions and protections for earnings).
The government response: no indication of a change in mood
On 23 September 2022, the House of Commons Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee, which is responsible for scrutinising the work of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and its associated public bodies (including the BBC), published the government response to its report Influencer Culture: Lights, camera, inaction? (previously reported on IRIS 2022-7/18).
The Committee had found low rates of compliance with advertising regulation and concluded that employment protection had failed to keep up with the growth of online influencer culture, leaving those working in the industry unsupported and child influencers at risk of exploitation. It made a range of recommendations that called on the government to strengthen both employment law and advertising regulation.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which monitors advertisements across the UK (including influencer marketing) for compliance with advertising rules, as well as the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA), which enforces competition and consumer laws and has powers to conduct investigations in suspected violations of these laws in the market, submitted separate responses to the Committee’s recommendations earlier in July 2022.
Recommendations concerning the ASA and the CMA
The government welcomed the Committee’s recommendations on strengthening the ASA’s regulatory tools (e.g., to be given statutory powers to enforce its rules) but pointed to the work currently undertaken as part of its Online Advertising Programme, which aims to improve transparency and accountability across the online advertising supply chain. The government also agreed that the CMA should have more powers to enforce consumer protection law and stated that it will bring forward its Digital Markets, Consumer and Competition Bill (announced in the 2022 Queen’s Speech) to provide for regulatory changes (including giving CMA the ability to decide for itself when consumer law has been broken and to impose monetary penalties when breaches are established).
Influencer careers and influencer harassment
The government agreed with the Committee that pursuing a career as an influencer often came with challenges, including a worrying rise in the amount of online abuse, harassment and intimidation directed towards them. Reference was made to Online Safety Bill (OSB), which will require technology companies to improve their users’ safety and take action against online abuse and threats on their services. The Bill places, in particular, a statutory duty on in-scope services to operate complaints procedures that provide for “appropriate” action to be taken by the provider in response to relevant complaints (clauses 18(2b) and 28(2b)). Services will be thus expected to consider the nuances of different types of harm and the appropriateness of their action in response to the complaints they receive. However, the progress of the Bill towards becoming law has been (at the time of writing) paused, with some of its most controversial elements being subject to government review.
Influencer code of conduct
In its response, the government expressed strong support for the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers’ (ISBA) Influencer Code of Conduct, noting that the ASA had already published guidance for influencers which existed alongside the Code of Conduct for the Influencer Marketing Trade Body. The government agreed with the Committee’s proposal to develop a code of conduct which would complement ISBA’s existing work by promoting good practice in the coordination between influencers, brands as well as talent agencies. It is unclear though how the different codes of conduct and guidelines will work together effectively.
Media literacy and children influencers
Children are often unable to differentiate undisclosed advertising from other types of content they access on social media. The Committee had found in its report that both children and parents were not being adequately supported in developing media literacy skills to make informed choices online. Although the government appreciated the risk of children being exploited as consumers of influencer content, it referred to its ongoing work on the Online Media Literacy Strategy, which is designed to equip users with the knowledge and skills required to become more discerning consumers of information. The OSB is also intended to strengthen Ofcom’s (the UK’s communication regulator) media literacy functions by including media literacy within the new transparency reporting and information-gathering powers.
The government also recognised the regulatory gap in relation to safeguarding children acting as “brand ambassadors” themselves. Under existing law (i.e., section 37 of the Children and Young Persons Act 1963), a licence must be obtained before a child can legally participate in certain types of performance and activities in Great Britain (including for example any live broadcast performance or any performance recorded to be used in a broadcast or a film intended for public exhibition). However, this protection does not extend to user-generated content, e.g., where young people or a family record themselves and share it on social media. The government pointed out that the Department for Education is open to exploring legislative options that may provide more effective protection to children but there was no express commitment to this.
Overall, the government welcomed the Committee’s comprehensive inquiry into influencer culture and recognised that it shed much-needed light on the influencer ecosystem and its impact on both traditional and digital media. However, the government’s response provides little indication of what concrete frontline actions will be taken.