By: Shelly Mittal
If you thought influencers are marketing only lifestyle products, you are probably in for a surprise. The 2020 presidential election is featuring all kinds of political influencer marketing to endorse presidential candidates. For example, Mike Bloomberg paid highly followed influencers to boost his presidential campaign. As the New York Times reported, he recruited Instagram influencers, including Meme 2020, to post satirical memes about him to gain attention and support for his presidential bid. In another effort, the Super PAC, United We Win used influencer platform AspireIQ to connect with influencers to endorse presidential candidate Cory Booker. The campaign was taken down after BuzzFeed published the story. Similarly, Super PAC NextGen has been working closely with influencers to mobilize young voters.
With the growing business of influencer marketing, political candidates are increasingly seeking to involve influencers in their political campaigns. One of the relevant concerns is where to draw the line for influencer marketing. Is there anything or any subject off limits? Many influencers believe that the stakes are too high in political endorsements because of the impact and potential for polarization among their audience. However, others believe that being vocal about politics and supporting your candidate should not be a problem.
Although the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) requires disclosures for influencer marketing, there are no guidelines on the subject matter of the social media posts. Rather, the issues of political advertising and endorsements are beyond FTC’s jurisdiction since FTC regulates only commercial speech; and political advertising is exclusively governed by the Federal Election Commission (FEC). The FEC has rules on how internet ads must be disclosed and as of December 2017, these rules apply to social media platforms as well. However, FEC has laid out no set of directions to regulate political influencer marketing in particular. Since there is a direct contract between influencer and the campaigner in political influencer marketing, it is technically different from regular political ads on social media platforms where campaigners pay social media companies. In the absence of specific disclosure guidelines for political influencer marketing, the liability of many influencers and the sponsors is uncertain. In December 2019, FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub issued an official statement expressing the lack of updated specific rules for internet ads. This situation leaves the campaigns to default either to guidelines laid out by the FTC for corporate entities or the FEC’s political advertising rules for traditional ad buys.
Many social media companies are self-regulating during the frenzy of the 2020 presidential election, probably an aftereffect of the Cambridge Analytica incident (a major scandal in early 2018 involving Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm which harvested personal data from millions of Facebook profiles without consent and used it for political advertising). Companies like Twitter have completely banned political ads on their platforms. However, political influencer marketing space is mostly being regulated by social media companies through disclosures. Twitter, for example, allows political influencer marketing on the platform so long as no paid promotion is attached to it. Similarly, Facebook, under its new guidelines, allows social media influencers to post sponsored content for political campaigns but the influencers need to disclose who paid for the branded content. YouTube makes no distinction between political influencer marketing and other forms of content and therefore, requires disclosures in all cases.
Because there has been a crackdown on traditional political advertising on social media platforms, influencer marketing has only become more valuable for political campaigns. The risks of abuse of influencer marketing including disinformation are especially inherent when there is no regulation. Roberto Cavazos, the executive-in-residence at the University of Baltimore’s Department of Information Systems and Decision Science, who previously published research on fraudulent influencer marketing, expressed that influencer marketing in the 2020 election has the potential to “damage democracy” if abused.
In light of the associated risks of political influencer marketing, the FEC needs to enforce new influencer-specific regulations on disclosures. Clear and detailed guidelines for political advertising are not only important, but necessary to effectively channelize the influence. For that, the FEC needs to have a working quorum to be able to regulate political advertising for the 2020 election, which seems improbable. Therefore, in the meantime, FEC can take a cue from FTC and specify minimum requirements for political posts by influencers or make the FTC’s guidelines applicable for political advertising as well. Hoping for a new election law by Congress, creating provisions for social media advertising, is probably too wishful!