Regulators crack down on social media influencers

New rules require online celebrities to be more transparent about paid-for posts – or face tough action

Credit: Thomas Ulrich/Pixabay

The Competition and Markets Authority’s has bolstered its guidelines on social media guidance, with potential sanctions imposed on influencers, brands, platforms that violate the rules.

The new guidance lays out clear and specific rules that, if breached, could see these parties facing enforcement action, according to the CMA. The guidance is also intended to protect users from undisclosed online advertisements and endorsements.

The newly introduced guidance makes it compulsory for influencers to clearly display on social media post if they were paid for the post, received items as a gift, and when they post for a brand they own or work for.

This will likely mean the inclusion of hashtags such as #Ad or #Advert rather than the more ambiguous #gift, #gifted, or #spon, the CMA said.

Social media platforms will also be now required to “be proactive in tackling hidden advertising” and provide tools for users to report hidden ads and label commercial content.

The government announced earlier this year that it intends to pass legislation that will give the CMA legal power to “enforce consumer protection law directly”.

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Ahead of these powers passing into law, the new advice on social media use is designed to clarify expectations of brands, influencers, and platforms, as well as provide the tools for users to be able to spot hidden advertisements and report them. Hidden advertisements can mislead consumers, which is a direct breach of consumer protection law.

In response to breaches of existing rules by 16 Instagram influencers, CMA and fellow regulator the Advertising Standards Authority have been working on the updated social media guidelines and sanctions in collaboration with the social media platform Instagram since 2019.

The current punishment CMA and ASA are legally allowed to impose is on a case-by-case basis, but businesses can be taken to court if they refuse to make changes to meet the set criteria. The ASA regularly monitors influencers and publishes a list of those who have “failed to provide that assurance in the first instance or subsequently reneged on it and will be subject to a period of enhanced monitoring spot checks,” according to the ASA.

The advertising watchdog may take legal action to ban undisclosed ads by influencers and impose further sanctions, if necessary, however – until the planned legislation passes – it cannot enforce consumer law directly.

Last year, the regulator created a webpage to list influencers that had repeatedly broken the rules.

They have also launched paid ad campaigns “highlighting the influencer’s continued non-compliance and onwards referral to enforcement partners.” In January, it took out ads against six influencers that had continued to breach guidelines after being listed on the rule-breakers page: Francesca Allen; Jess Gale; Eve Gale; Belle Hassan; Anna Vakili; and Jodie Marsh.

George Lusty, CMA senior director of consumer protection, said: “Transparency is everyone’s responsibility – from social media platforms to brands and influencers. Those not already doing their part should get up to speed with the law now, to make sure people can quickly and easily identify paid-for content. Following our guides will help them with this.”

Katherine Hapgood

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