The topic of influencers polarises public opinion: love ‘em or hate ‘em influencers are here to stay. The “haters” camp is pretty vocal and trolling is a big problem that needs to be addressed, however influencers also need to hold up their end of the bargain by posting authentic and transparent content.
Instagram influencer Em Sheldon spoke to MPs on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee recently, and followed up with an interview on BBC Women’s Hour to discuss the impact that online trolling has had on her and what should or could be done about it. This discussion didn’t cover the draft Online Safety Bill, which seeks to attack online harms, while balancing the duty of care owed by digital service providers with freedom of expression. The online harms covered by the Bill include bullying and harassment, which is what trolling is. The new rules will be enforced independently by OFCOM, as the regulator, who will have the power to levy substantial fines: up to a maximum of £18 million or 10% of global turnover. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is also exploring the idea of extending this to include criminal liability for senior individuals who commit a major breach of the statutory duty of care.
The Bill aims to pack a punch: the hope is that by making platform providers accountable, they will take (further) steps to ensure that content posted to their sites is not harmful. However this approach doesn’t penalise the trolls themselves. What motivates them to post their views in such an abrasive and harmful manner and should they be penalised directly? The generous reasoning for troll’s behaviour is that they feel the need to hold influencers accountable, to make it clear that influencers’ lives are perhaps not as perfect as they might first seem. The Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) requires influencers to disclose posts that are paid for or controlled by brands as adverts, however it is clear that many influencers are guilty of failing to use #ad in the way that they should. In March the ASA found that only 35% of advertising stories were clearly labelled and obviously identifiable as such, and in June it named and shamed four influencers for “routinely failing to clearly disclose when they are advertising to consumers on their social media channels.”
The ASA regularly reacts to complaints from the public. Last week it found that a series of story posts on Charlotte Dawson's Instagram account for BPerfect Cosmetics were not obviously identifiable as marketing communications. Each post featured a swipe up link to BP Cosmetics’ website, and a number featured text that stated “USE MY CODE CHARLOTTE20 FOR 20% OFF IT’S A YES FROM ME … @BPERFECTCOSMETICS”) however only one post featured the label “AD” and filters gave a misleading impression about the performance capabilities of the product. While the ASA chips away at its mission to ensure influencer transparency, it has been accused of being reactive rather than proactive.
While influencers have some work to do to ensure that they post transparent and authentic content, there can be no justification for the hateful behaviour of trolls. With legislation struggling to keep pace with technology, the wait for the Online Harms Bill feels long (and there are questions as to how effective it will be once passed). In the meantime, if you are the victim of trolling and the abuse that you receive makes you feel at threat or is otherwise unlawful - report it to the social media platform (and, if relevant, to the police). Social media platforms regularly take down unlawful content and have procedures in place to enable users to easily report that content.
Social media influencers who document their lifestyles receive daily online abuse which increases when they promote products and make money.