Inquiry launched into the power of social media influencers

20th April 2021

The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has announced an investigation into the power of social media influencers. The inquiry will “examine the power of influencers on social media, how influencer culture operates, and will consider the absence of regulation on the promotion of products or services, aside from the existing policies of individual platforms”.

The committee, chaired by Julian Knight MP, is a cross-party select committee which scrutinises the policies, spending and administration of the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. Mr Knight said of the inquiry: “There’s concern that while influencers are useful to advertisers in reaching the right markets on social media, there is a lack of transparency around the promotion of products or services. We’ll be looking at whether there’s a need for tighter regulation in this area and what form that might take.”

The inquiry follows investigations conducted by the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) and, more recently, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) into the conduct of endorsements on social media platforms.

The CMA’s investigations have focused on hidden advertising on social media platforms such as Instagram, where users have been reprimanded for failing to make it clear when their posts are sponsored by a particular brand. Even where sponsorship is disclosed, the investigation carried out by the ASA concluded that more than three-quarters of influencers “buried their disclosures within their posts”.

Hidden advertising is illegal in the UK and social media platforms have begun to include measures to prompt users to make a suitable disclosure where it appears they have been offered an incentive to publish a post on their account.

The CMA has also published guidance for influencers and the companies that engage with them to ensure that they stay on the right side of consumer protection law. Companies who are seeking to use influencers to promote their products should be careful to include provisions in their contract that require the influencer to make such disclosures and refer them to the guidance where necessary.

Despite the concerns raised by these authorities, the inquiry also seeks to assess the positive impact that influencer culture can have on society, such as raising awareness for campaigns to address vaccine hesitancy among people from ethnic minority backgrounds.

The committee is inviting written submissions from the public before 7 May, on how ‘influencer’ and ‘influencer culture’ should be defined, perceptions of influencers and social media platforms, and the role of policymakers in ensuring that arrangements between influencers and advertisers are transparent.

The inquiry is still at a very early stage, though there is an implication that we may expect to see a change in government policy as a result and perhaps further regulation of the content and nature of posts by influencers in the future.