Just to get an unspoken rule out of the way right now: Nearly all of the content on social media is made to support someone’s agenda. Not a shocker at all. It doesn’t have to be about a commercial enterprise selling a product; everybody who participates in social media wants to get something out of it, be it Internet-points, attention, to promote a political agenda, love, or some other gratification. And it should also not be a big surprise that people can be dishonest and insincere on the Internet.

It stands to reason that, in an age when the global attention economy online determines such a huge chunk of our lives, most people will participate with a self-serving agenda, be it self-promotion or any other agenda. And most people seem pretty content to let abuse of this system slide, but regulatory agencies have begun questioning how much we should let people get away with.

New and Existing Regulation…

The Advertising Standards Authority in the UK is the latest to urge a clearer expression of commercial interest, calling for unambiguous identification of online ads. For one example, TV reality stars have taken to Instagram and other social media venues, not coincidentally promoting third-party businesses, blurring the lines between editorial and advertising content to the confusion of consumers. Elsewhere, Twitter is the latest social network to outright ban cryptocurrency ads, and the Cambridge Analytica scandal threatens to take down Facebook.

The US FTC has already increased the pressure on online “shills” to be more forthcoming with their agenda. But in the middle of all this, we have to ask where to draw the line, and if it’s to our benefit to draw it closer. The mobile commerce market has emerged to be the biggest influencer of worldwide trends, most of it on the back of tweets, Facebook posts, or Reddit links without very much of it moving through official advertiser channels.

How Do We Define an Advertiser?

Most regulatory agencies are stuck defining it as “being paid in some form to promote a product or service.” But what happens when the small business owner takes to the web to do their own marketing? How about employees in a business chatting up their own industry to ensure their continued employment? The owner of stock in a company praising that company online? The relatives of a reality show contestant taking to Facebook to encourage all their friends and family to vote for their victory? And this is not to begin to address the issue of political sway and influence.

Cynical web users may resign to assume that everybody who posts an opinion online has a pony in the race one way or another, but that’s also an attitude too extreme in the other direction. And all the regulations are asking, after all, is the clear disclaimer that an advertiser is an advertiser. The misrepresentation of a paid agent as a sincere user sharing a message used to be called “astroturfing,” for the fake plastic grass pretending to be a “grassroots” movement. But these days, the social media economy has virtually made astroturfers of us all, whether we like it or not. Nobody posts online just to say “Ignore me.”

No Easy Solution To Deceptive Online Marketing:

With the blatantly sponsored examples in the ASA’s example – TV celebrities “sharing” their enthusiasm for drinks and food – the examples are very clear. To be sure, none of us were likely to be fooled in the first place. But for every blatant shill we catch, there’s bound to be a hundred times more incidents which are more subtle. In the end, commerce is a fog which clings to social media no matter how many fans we run to clear things up.

 

by: Kevin Faber