The ethics of online influencers

WE all have a moral compass, yet sometimes, when it comes to social media, the arrow on our moral compass becomes a little skewed, writes Orlagh Shanks.

For some, having a computer or phone screen as a barrier between themselves and the real world seems to evoke a feeling of newfound confidence and where the internet becomes a place where they can choose to be someone completely new.

Putting yourself out there on social media can also bring about a feeling of vulnerability. Influencers and celebrities are open to the scrutiny of the wider public, who behind their computer or phone screen, feel that it’s ok to comment on how someone looks, acts or appears.

Influencer ethics

When it comes to social media influencers, there are a lot of grey areas and room for development with new laws and regulations emerging constantly. 

In the beginning, back in 2009 it was unclear how influencers would declare an Instagram post as an advert or as being sponsored. Captions of these posts were often created by the marketer and not by the influencer themselves, with the image often being a product shot including the influencer. 

Thankfully influencer content has come a long way and we see the emergence of creative Instagram reels, TikTok videos and long-form video content on YouTube and in the form of IGTV (Instagram TV). 

Laws and regulations have now been formed to let influencers know how they should declare sponsorships and collaborations. However, this cannot be 100 per cent regulated by the governing bodies due to the vast amount of social media influencers on various platforms. 

Influencers are sometimes paid to promote products and services they haven’t used and have no experience with. Is this ethical? Influencers promote beauty products yet filter and doctor the image in which the product features. Is this ethical or misleading? 

Authenticity is crucial with audiences able to now see through the editing and doctoring of images, whether a collaboration is an authentic partnership and whether something hasn’t been declared as an ad. For social media influencers today, there is no room for a lack of ethics. 

Legally, influencers are required to declare adverts on social media by including ‘#ad’ in the caption. Instagram have now tried to make this easier by including options to tag a brand partner in a Paid Partnership which will show at the top of the Instagram post. 

However, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) cannot monitor every influencer on social media and so there are those that fall through the cracks and go undeclared. 

You might ask why an influencer wouldn’t declare an advert on social media when they are told to do so, but there are stats to say that audiences do tend to scroll past adverts on social media more so than organic posts and more often don’t like to interact with adverts, and so the influencer may try to pass an advert as an organic post to increase engagements and impressions.  

Ethically, this is misleading to the influencer’s audience, but audiences are incredibly savvy in knowing when something is organic and when something is an advert. In fact, audiences are very likely to call this out and ask the influencer if this is an advert and if they have been paid to promote the product/service in question. 

With time, we should see a development in technology where the ASA and other advertising authorities are able to monitor social media posts that come from influencers and act against those that don’t declare sponsorships and adverts.

Norway recently introduced a new law where influencers must declare when an image has been filtered or photoshopped, hoping to increase clarity and transparency for audiences. Thankfully, we are now seeing a new niche of influencers called the ‘No-Filter Influencers’ who showcase themselves in their most true form, showing their audiences the parts of themselves they would usually choose to airbrush or edit out. Audiences are flocking to these influencers and seeing them as a breath of fresh air as they can trust that these influencers will be 100 per cent honest with them, which will help when it comes to running advertisements through the influencers. 

Removing filters, removing airbrushing and being completely vulnerable with their audiences allows influencers to be authentic and genuine, increasing the level of trust between them and their followers, which will in turn improve the relationship and overall allow the influencer to have a greater influence and greater impact. 

Ethical influencers are often the best to partner with and offer a very high return on investment. There are also the influencers known for their ‘good influence’ where they promote causes tackling climate change, plastic pollution and more. Those influencers are playing their part in spreading important messages, having important discussions, and encouraging their audiences to accept and love how they look. 

Influencers understand that they have a great amount of influence on the way their audiences think and behave, and so should strive to be ethically sound in the messaging that they are promoting to their followers.

ORLAGH Shanks is a campaign executive working in influencer marketing and has recently spent time working in New York, Liverpool and London within public relations. Shanks is also an award-winning blogger and hosts The Orlagh Claire Podcast focused on career, education and living differently.