What is an influencer?

In South Africa, and elsewhere on the globe, brands have been steadily moving away from tradition forms of advertising and expanding into the the realm of social media where they use influential personalities to market and promote their brands and/or ideas. These personalities, who enjoy a substantial following on social media, mostly on Twitter and Instagram, are referred to as social media influencers. As shapers of public opinion through their personal social accounts, these personalities have the power to affect the decisions of others because of their authority, knowledge, position or relationship with their audiences. It is for this reason that we pay special attention to influencers during the lead up to the 2019 National Elections.

The Bell Pottinger incident showed us all the impact that false social media narratives can have on present day politics. Influencers straddle a very important line, as they create legitimacy for campaigns and brands. Unbeknownst to many of us, this is impacting our political perspective. We have already seen how quickly misinformation can spread on social media and while these influencers may not necessarily be sharing falsehoods, their power to influence and the current blurred lines of what’s paid advertising and what’s personal opinion on social media, mean that this is an area of concern. This is troubling because these people with influence on social media have the power to set the agenda and shape conversations, even if what they are sharing is: not true, not verified, not ethical or just not relevant. It is especially concerning during elections, when it’s already been revealed that South African political parties are using these tactics in additional to traditional advertising methods.

The government recently gazetted draft regulations on political party funding which seeks to, provide for, and regulate, the public and private funding of political parties. As well as the establishment and management of funds to fund represented political parties sufficiently, among other things. This speaks to the need of transparency and accountability of political parties to their constituencies and the general public, especially during these euphoric times of the elections. Media Monitoring Africa (MMA) endorses and stands by this principled position of transparent and responsible use of social media, particularly when it comes to election campaigns that are are paid for as they have the potential to influence voter choices and decisions and subsequently shaping democracy after the last ballot has been counted. As such, MMA will also make a submission on the draft regulations, which we will make available on our website.  

So what of paid influencers in the times of elections?

The 8th May 2019 was declared as the election date by South African President Cyril Ramaphosa. South Africa is to soon be subjected to rigorous campaigning from the many different political parties (it is reported that over 280 political organisations will appear on the ballot) on equally as many platforms ranging from traditional news media, billboards and social media.

In recent years, social media has been crucial in shaping public discourse and opinion and as such, big brands have moved towards digital platforms for their advertising campaigns. This too has been the case with political parties in the run-up to elections, nationwide. We saw in early 2018 in the United States election when the consulting firm Cambridge Analytica together with Facebook extrapolated private raw data of over 80 million Facebook users without their consent and used it to seek to influence the outcome of the U.S elections which saw Donald Trump elected as President.

This sort of practice, perhaps not on the same scale, also rocked South Africa in the run up to the 2016 Municipal Elections. However, in this instance it was not a big consulting firm doing the “dirty” work but “ordinary” South African citizens who happen to have a substantial following on the different social media platforms, referred to as “influencers”. In the run up to these elections, the ANC was said to have solicited the use of influencers, paying them to push pro-ANC messages on the different social media platforms, particularly Twitter.

In an article by the Business Insider on the topic of social influencers, it is reported that South African influencers earn anything between R500 and R10,000 for a single Instagram post while the Daily Maverick reported the same figures for a Twitter and/or Instagram post, and up to R200,000 for a longer lasting campaign.

Is this fair and ethical?

At first glance, especially in a country where the youth unemployment rate is sitting at 38,2% in the first quarter of 2018, the social influencer trend might come across as a creative and innovative way of creating employment for young South Africans, in line with the move towards digitization and the “fourth industrial revolution.” Whether this argument has merit or not requires further interrogation, however the question of transparency has to be taken seriously in this regard. It is deceptive and unethical for paid persons on social media to push messages of support to whichever political party without notifying their followers that the message is sponsored or paid for as this amounts to false advertising and misrepresentation.

According to the Consumer Protection Act 68 of 2008 (“the CPA”), which promotes the advertising of products in a fair and reasonable manner, it is of tantamount importance that advertisers ensure that no misrepresentation is made about their products. Section 29 of the CPA explicitly notes that the marketing of goods or services is to be done in a manner that is not reasonably likely to imply a false or misleading representation concerning those goods or services and not misleading, fraudulent or deceptive in any way, including the sponsoring of events.

This means that for political parties using social media platforms through paid influencers for electioneering, content should be treated the same as it would in traditional media, adhering to the same regulations. To ensure that this is indeed the case, MMA will be making a submission to Parliament on this particular issue of social media marketing. To personally and further ensure that social influencing is fair and transparent, especially during this period of excessive campaigning and marketing by political parties to woo voters, it is important for influencers to adhere to these recommendations and one such way of doing so is to follow the draft regulations made by the Advertising Regulatory Board, which if passed, will require influencers to include “#Ad” or “#Sponsored” in any of their paid posts. This will at least ensure a balancing act between ensuring that election campaigning will be transparent, free and fair as well as further cultivating the usefulness of social media in creating jobs, both key concerns of South Africa’s growing democracy.

Regardless of the current regulatory environment governing this space, we urge all parties who are using influencers to be ethical and transparent when doing so.