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Opinion: Buyer beware: Social media is ripe for deception

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Perhaps the most artificial job the internet has created is that of the social media influencer.

Through the use of such topics as fashion, food, music and business, influencers are generally defined as individuals who take to social media platforms, such as Instagram, to gain a following and promote the glamour or status of their daily lives, often with lucrative product promotions interspersed throughout.

Don’t be mistaken: These posts are sponsored. They may not be well identified as such, and they’re included alongside actual moments of the influencer’s life – getting coffee, interacting with family and friends, sitting down to a meal or trying on new clothes.

Often a second job for celebrities, the influencer role is, as the name implies, highly persuasive. They have great sway over their audiences and, as such, are highly sought after by advertisers seeking to engage in so-called native advertising, in which sponsored posts look nearly identical to others. In this way, ads blend in and theoretically are more impactful as a result.

Industry statistics point to the fruit of these labors.

Social media management platform Hootsuite estimates around 60% of users discover products on Instagram. And the influencers themselves are making beaucoup bucks, according to estimates from Hopper HQ, another social media planning and scheduling service. The company’s 2019 Instagram Rich List estimates No. 1 earner Kylie Jenner, of “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” fame, makes around $1.3 million per sponsored post. Additionally, media reports abound on influencers asking for free stuff in exchange for posts – often those real moments sprinkled alongside obviously promotional ones.

Clearly, this is a windfall for influencers, advertisers and social media networks. All are profiting except the user, who’s producing profits for the other three.

A loyal social media user might not think twice about taking an influencer’s recommendation for a certain product – that happens to be a promotional post – if that influencer’s entire Instagram is devoted to a particular industry. It fades into the ether and becomes difficult to discern from other posts. Users forget they’re the subjects of the advertisements, which is exactly the point. Instead of feeling “influenced” to buy, users may feel like the decision was theirs to make. They feel empowered, as if it’s their own thought, when in fact, multiple people worked – through an influencer – to plant that idea in their mind.

It’s worth acknowledging some users are self-aware of the process and purposefully go to Instagram and influencers to find new products to purchase. For those who are unaware of the ruse – perhaps blissfully ignorant of the process – the system is a cycle that perpetuates fake culture and rampant, often unnecessary, consumerism.

Celebrity worship frankly has gotten out of control with the advent of the internet. More than ever before, people can keep up to date with the goings-on of their favorite famous people. People can find out what celebrities like and don’t like, and if they so choose, tailor their own lives around those preferences and products. Individuality takes a backseat in this process, and so too does critical thinking – particularly in the fast-moving world of social media.

It’s a culture that’s ripe for exploitation. But ultimately, it’s up to the users.

A consumer’s dollar is his to spend, and the onus is on the product producer to provide thoughtful, and accurate, materials to earn that dollar. It shouldn’t be gained through misleading and deceptive practices. Consumerism doesn’t have to be a dirty word; the process can be more transparent and cooperative.

For businesses, be up front about what you’re offering and how it can influence someone’s life. Be the change that’s needed for capitalism to have a better reputation on the internet. For customers, do your homework and quit letting celebrities you don’t even know tell you how to spend your money. Be acutely aware that others will deceive in order to get that dollar from your pocket.

The internet can be so much more than artificial. The potential is so amazing for new and interesting ideas. Let’s not get complacent with the way things currently are being done.

Springfield Business Journal Web Editor Geoff Pickle can be reached at gpickle@sbj.net.

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