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Chris Philp: Social media advertising is a problem that needs fixing

Two-thirds of influencers’ ads on Instagram are not clearly labelled – regulation must keep up, says the tech minister.

By Sarah Dawood

The government is looking to tackle the “infinite universe” of social media influencer advertising, as research reveals that the majority of paid-for posts on Instagram are not clearly labelled or declared.

Chris Philp, minister for tech and the digital economy, was speaking to the digital, culture, media and sport (DCMS) select committee in parliament this week about online influencer culture.

The session concluded that influencers who have been paid to promote products on social media, especially on Instagram, are not being transparent about the fact that they are advertising.

Research from the UK advertising regulator the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) in 2020 found that nearly two-thirds – 65 per cent – of ads on Instagram Stories were insufficiently labelled. It also found that where Stories were labelled as #ad, it was often difficult to spot due to font size, colour or being obscured.

The ASA reported a 55 per cent increase in complaints it had received about influencers compared with 2019, with nearly two-thirds of these about ad disclosure on Instagram. Social media influencers often have young audiences, adding another layer of ethical complexity to the issue.

“Regulation lags behind technological change”

Philp announced that an upcoming Online Advertising Programme will address this issue and is expected to be published this year alongside the revised Online Safety Bill. The government will also look to better resource regulators such as the ASA, to ensure they have the “adequate skills and technology” to properly monitor the digital market.

He told the committee: “If someone is being paid to promote a product or service, it is important that those viewing the content know that the person is not doing it impartially or with strong conviction but because they’re being paid.”

He said that the “pervasive and constantly accessible nature of social media” gave it impact and influence that goes beyond traditional media. “This is not the same as TV advertising, with its finite number of slots,” he said. “It’s an infinite universe.

“Failure to disclose paid-for advertising is a problem that needs sorting out,” Philp continued. “Regulation change lags behind technological change. Regulators like the ASA need to be agile, jump on trends quickly and make sure it is resourcing [appropriately].”

Civil servant Mark Griffin, deputy director of creative economy at DCMS, was also present. He added that compliance rates around declaring advertising are “too low” and that the department will seek to strengthen regulation around “accountability and transparency”, with sanctions for both advertisers and social media platforms that “do not cooperate”.

The influencer pay gap

Philp was also questioned on diverse representation and pay in the influencer industry, after a survey conducted in December last year by public relations agency MSL and educational platform The Influencer League found a pay gap of 35 per cent between US-based Black and white influencers. Concerns around biased algorithms were raised.

Philp said that this “serious” issue was likely reflected in the UK and should be addressed. He added that the government is due to publish information on artificial intelligence (AI) standards and regulations this year and would aim to update the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers’ (ISBA) code of conduct, which looks at issues of diversity and equality.

Abuse directed at influencers

DCMS committee member John Nicolson also raised the “horrific levels” of online abuse directed at influencers, particularly women, such as former Love Island contestant Amy Hart; she has previously presented evidence to MPs of the online abuse she regularly receives, having been told by social media giants such as Instagram that it does not breach their community guidelines.

“It’s obscene,” he said. “The social media companies are doing nothing about it. What more can be done to protect influencers who choose to put their head above the parapet and talk about their lives [online]?”

Philp said that the upcoming Online Safety Bill would help to enforce sanctions on social media giants even if abuse is not classed as “illegal” – they will have a duty to carry out risk assessments, put in place policies to deal with abuse towards specific groups, and enforce these, or face fines of 10 per cent of their global annual revenue.

Watch the full session here.

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