In an ideal world, industries should be able to operate without interference from the state and instead regulate themselves through pre-existing ethical frameworks and social conscience. Unfortunately, we don’t live in an ideal world, business costs are high and as such businesses must find increasingly creative ways to get our message across, sell our products or services and do whatever is necessary to keep ourselves out of the red. One of those ways is through influencer marketing. Fortunately, in the U.K. businesses have the freedom to engage in business practices which, wouldn’t be allowed in other parts of the world, our lack of state interference and les-sais-faire attitudes make Britain a fantastic place to do business. Unfortunately, Britain is not home to Wikipedia, Wikipedia keeps its servers in the U.S.A, and as such, whether we like it or not, professional Wikipedia editors must adhere to U.S. advertising regulations, and in the U.S. the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), rule the roost.
What is the FTC?
If you’re reading this in Britain, you probably won’t have heard of the FTC. They don’t have the notoriety of the FBI, and the chances are no one is going to be making any films or TV series about their agents. However, that’s not to say British influencers should underestimate them if British companies break federal laws they have the power to extradite. The purpose of the FTC isn’t to suppress free markets with red-tape, but instead, protect consumers from unethical business practices. For example, in 1992 they intervened to regulate infomercials; not the kind of late-night infomercials you can pick up on your digital TV box. Unscrupulous businesspeople like Kevin Trudeau would post half-hour long adverts on late-night television, which to anyone watching appeared to be legitimate programmes, with “experts” discussing myriad products ranging from health to financial products. The programs often took on familiar forms such as talk shows and featured celebrity guests and live studio audiences, as a ploy to build trust in the viewers. At some point in the broadcast, the programmer would present viewers with a toll-free telephone number where they could purchase whatever service or product the programme was pushing. To those of us who make a living selling products or services, this seems like a great way of reaching a broad audience, and for a society to be genuinely free, entrepreneurs must have the right to operate without fear of state oppression and consumers should have the right to spend their hard-earned cash however they see fit. Unfortunately, there will always be greedy marketers who push things too far and lazy consumers who don’t conduct thorough research before making a purchase; thus spoiling things for everyone else. The issue the FTC had with these infomercials was that due to the format, there was a risk “that the public will mistake the paid advertisement with its paid endorsements and pre-arranged demonstrations for an actual, objective talk show”. (Lewis, 1992)
Since the invention of the internet, fortunately, infomercials are mostly a thing of the past.
Or are they? Has the practice mutated and adapted to the social media age?
Are paid social media posts the infomercials of today?
Apart from reading Wikipedia content policies until my eyes bleed, my favourite pastime is mountain biking. I am a terrible mechanic, but either out of poverty or misplaced masculine pride, I seldom take my bike to a bike shop to fit new parts or make repairs. Instead, I use blood, sweat, swearwords and YouTube tutorials. Recently, I ordered a new dropper-seat post for my beloved steed, and as usual, the manufacturer’s fitting instructions were cryptic and confusing. So I turned to YouTube, the video began with a man, in his garage, spinning a yarn about how his father-in-law ordered a new toaster on the internet but they accidentally sent him a dropper-post and instead of going through the hassle of returning it he decided to give it to his son in law. My first thoughts were, yeah right, in the entire history of monogamy no father inlaw would do this. Videos like these are typical examples of influencer marketing. Consumers place their trust bloggers, vloggers and Instagrammers because we see them as an objective source of information, removed from the barrage of billboards and banners. On this occasion, I found the video extremely helpful, I went for a ride today and the product exceeded my expectations and performed well Shropshire’s wild, untamed terrain. However, suppose I had seen what I thought was an independent objective review, purchased a product only to have it break while I’m hurtling through a rock garden at 40mph, Shropshire’s buzzards would be having a very delectable dinner indeed. Joking aside, in 2018 and 2019, a string of incidents involving influencers pushing cosmetic products sent shockwaves through the influencer marketing industry. To compound matters, the content in question was not clearly labelled as paid content, meaning, much like the infomercials of the early 90s consumers who believed they were viewing an impartial, objective critique were in-fact seeing a paid advert.
What does influencer marketing have to do with Wikipedia?
Since the Greeks began compiling the first encyclopaedias some 2000 years ago, the format became the go-to place for accurate, objective knowledge. The word encyclopaedia combines the Greek word for recurrent or general, enkyklios, with the phrase paedia, which roughly translated means education or the raising of a child. How do I know this? I read it in an encyclopaedia. Interestingly, the format of an encyclopaedia entry hasn’t changed much in 2000 years; an entry gives a general overview of the topic supported by reliable sources which the reader can use as a springboard to further learning. What has changed is the technology. Inventions such as the Gutenberg press, and later, the internet democratised our access to knowledge, meaning you no longer need to be a student of Aristotle or a university scholar to look something up. Classic encyclopaedias such as the Britannica could be found in the homes of everyday people some one hundred years ago and today, thanks to the work of the Wikimedia Foundation some of the worlds most vulnerable communities can access life-saving information in some of the most remote parts of the planet. An excellent example of this was the 2014 Ebola outbreak where Wikipedia emerged as a vital source of life-saving information that people can trust. In my opinion, if an encyclopaedia can save just one life, then it is sacred, because what’s more sacred than the life of another human being?
Encyclopaedia writers are the original influencers
For those who read or edit Wikipedia, the platform is a trusted source of knowledge. There have of course been some major fails over the years, but generally, we accept what we read on the encyclopaedia as the honest, objective truth. For those of us who write encyclopaedia entries, whether we are ancient Greeks, Bertrand Russell or paid Wikipedia editors, we are influencers and must, therefore, take our epistemic responsibilities seriously. Unfortunately, many of the high-profile individuals or businesses who come to me asking, sometimes begging for assistance don’t share my opinion on the importance of honest, neutral Wikipedia content. However, those that do generally get a better outcome for their project. Marketers and PR professionals who, frankly, should know better, frequently ask me to post promotional or advertorial content, and I always turn down such requests. If I were to post advertorial content poorly disguised as an encyclopaedia entry, not only would it be reverted within hours, it would constitute an undisclosed native advert which is not only illegal but undermines the faith we as a society have placed in Wikipedia. Influencer marketing regulations do apply to Wikipedia, but due to the community’s efficacy in spotting, tagging or removing paid content the FTC has yet to respond to Wikipedia’s calls for tighter regulation of the platform. However, with the new influencer marketing rules that could all be about to change. In the document titled, Disclosures 101 for Social Media Influencers, the FTC lay down the law in clear, unambiguous terms. Influencers must disclose any financial, employment, personal or family relationship with the brand that they are promoting.
To disclose or not to disclose
As things stand with Wikipedia, I no longer recommend disclosing your conflict of interest if you are a PR or marketing professional tasked with editing a Wikipedia page. There is too much anti-business sentiment within Wikipedia’s community for the PR community to engage with the platform without putting ourselves at risk of harassment or cyber-bullying. Even the most ethical and reputable white-hat Wikipedia editors are subject to harassment from anti-business trolls, for merely trying to secure the best possible outcome for their clients. The events of the last twelve months paint a clear picture, Wikipedia’s official guidelines for paid editors are no longer workable and have therefore failed. The implications of this for paid Wikipedia editors or PR professionals are straightforward; to stay on the right side of the law, we must take extra care to ensure our actions on the platform do not undermine the trust that readers place in Wikipedia. We must go the extra mile to ensure that every edit, every update is honest, verifiable and objective. We document clients, not promote them. We must not do anything a good-faith volunteer editor wouldn’t do, and above all, we must act with integrity and regulate ourselves because if we don’t self-regulate, government bodies will step in and govern us, and as we all know, state interventions and oppressive regulations are the mortal enemies of creative entrepreneurs and free-markets.
Lewis, W. R., 1992. Infomercials, Deceptive Advertising And the. Fordham Urban Law Journal , 19(3), p. 1.