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23 November 2023

Social media’s brand problem

As young people get more of their news from TikTok we need to separate sponsored content from verified fact.

By Sarah Manavis

Though social media has become clogged with misinformation, mind-numbing trends and shrill polarisation, it can still be a useful tool for advice. On many platforms, a request for anything from running-shoe recommendations to parenting guidance can yield better results than a search engine. This has made it a good place to elevate expert voices, somewhere individuals with specialist knowledge – health experts, data analysts, political commentators – are trusted by millions. Their knowledge is niche and tailored, offering something more detailed and often more useful than a traditional news source. But there are also many who masquerade as having knowledge they do not. These pseudo-experts often look and sound just like their reliable counterparts – with the same large followings – and appear just as smart and trustworthy. Distinguishing between useful specialist knowledge and misinformation can be tricky, as there are few rules about what can or can’t be posted online.

Last week, though, the US Federal Trade Commission started trying to make this distinction clearer: it sent warning letters to more than a dozen diet influencers as well as two major food industry groups – one of which was the American Beverage Association (ABA), whose members include Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and the Canadian Sugar Institute – for failing to clearly disclose sponsored content partnerships promoting artificial sweeteners and sugary foods on Instagram and TikTok. A spokersperson for ABA said the company had taken “meticulous steps” to be transparent in its influencer partnerships, and that it “will continue our ongoing commitment to disclose the relationship between dietitians [and ABA]”.

This government move followed a Washington Post investigation that found many self-styled diet experts were posting content which questioned World Health Organisation findings on things such as the dangers and false weight-loss benefits of aspartame – a no-calorie sweetener found in popular drinks, like Diet Coke – alongside the promotion of foods such as ice cream or peanut buttercups as healthy food choices. The Washington Post found that these influencers, who used the hashtag #safetyofaspartame and failed to clearly signpost their commercial associations, were paid up to tens of thousands of dollars for sharing unscientific sponsored content, liked and viewed by millions of people.

[See also: Will the Online Safety Act protect us or infringe our freedoms?]

This type of story should make anyone who gets health advice from nutrition “experts” online pause. But it goes beyond paid-for diet guidance: social media is full of talking-head influencers “educating” their followers on anything from dermatology to exercise to sustainability. TikTok has become the most popular source of news for 12- to 15-year-olds, where it is delivered by news influencers purporting to be reliable sources, but who often get their own information from other posts on social media. TikTok is also very popular as a search engine among teens, outranking even Google. Social media is increasingly the first place people go for important information.

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If social media has become both a news and information source for young people, it is also where influencers seek to profit from adverts. They need sponsored content to make money, and those sponsors will always have an interest. The relationship between influencer and sponsor is often intentionally obscured: crafty workarounds are employed to ensure expensive campaigns don’t look like advertising. (This can involve admitting something is an ad without saying exactly who paid for it, as the Washington Post found with many of the diet influencers it investigated, or by suggesting the content serendipitously promotes an influencer’s pre-existing beliefs, rather than being transparent about the fact that the content is only being posted as an advert.) All this means that viewers must be extremely vigilant in order to avoid being sold untrustworthy information.

The warnings administered by the Federal Trade Commission suggest regulatory bodies are beginning to realise how serious the failure to disclose paid-for content may become. But without stricter rules and improved media literacy, vested interests will be able to take advantage of viewers who take every word of their favourite influencers as gospel, and who presume every piece of advice to be vetted, verified fact. Unless these regulations are extensive and strong, influencers and brands could manoeuvre around new restrictions – leaving everyone and anyone unworthy of trust.

[See also: Are governments finally pushing back against Big Tech?]

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