Online influencer culture and politics: What happens when the two meet?

Paige Occeñola
Online influencer culture and politics: What happens when the two meet?
Digital influencers as endorsers of brands are nothing new. But what happens when a politician is the product?



AT A GLANCE:

  • Bloggers and digital influencers are regularly tapped by ad agencies and brands to promote campaigns and products.
  • The same tactics and skills employed by boutique agencies to push products and build reputation by tapping digital influencers are also used for political clients.
  • When the line between the organic and paid endorsements are blurred, it also has an impact on how the Comelec and candidates implement and comply with campaign finance regulation. 

MANILA, Philippines – Scrolling through your Instagram feed and seeing a pretty influencer casually posting about shampoo is nothing out of the ordinary.

If you tap an outfit post, you’ll be greeted by the different brands that make up the entire outfit. Digital influencers as product endorsers have long been a part of our online awareness, and while the lines between a genuine endorsement and a paid one may have been blurred by the process, the impact of this has been largely harmless.

But what happens when a politician is the product?

Blogger and influencer culture

Bloggers and digital influencers have become important players in the digital ecosystem and are regularly tapped by ad agencies and brands to promote campaigns and products.

Unlike television commercials or magazine features, which are generally top-down in terms of distribution, digital influencers have the unique ability to delicately toe the line between being both aspirational and relatable. Their popularity, community, and influence are largely shaped by the perception of their accessibility – their day-to-day lives are the content, and they are the brand.

Unlike upfront celebrity endorsements, an influencer posting about a product has a veneer of authenticity. With their candid and personal takes, as well as their ability to build and cultivate close engagement with followers, digital influencers have become celebrities in their own right.

With social media, monetizing your online presence has become serious business and has since then branched out to different modes of doing so. While the traditional model follows that of the influencers who build their brand around their own names and personalities, there are also those who are able to craft characters and personas online.

Some create humorous fictional profiles, speaking in the voices of the made-up characters, while others create accounts that serve as repositories for humorous memes or inspirational quotes.

Monetization of online personas

In the United States, the Federal Trade Commission requires brands, celebrities, and influencers to openly disclose that their content is sponsored, which is why you’d occasionally see “#ad” on a post, for example, about fitness tea.

In the Philippines, however, we do not have this mechanism. While there are degrees of professionalization in the digital influencer industry such as documentation, the issuance of receipts, and the occasional disclosure, these things are still not industry standards and are left largely to the discretion and preference of the ad agency and the influencer.

And that’s just for bloggers whose names and faces we are all acquainted with. For anonymous meme or inspirational quote accounts, the distinctions become less clear, and therefore more vulnerable to abuse. 

Politicians as product

By itself, the non-disclosure of a sponsored post is problematic because the audience isn’t clued in on the fact that money changed hands – and we’re just talking about small things such as clothes or a pair of sunglasses. The game changes completely when politicians and political messages become the product.

In a study by Jonathan Ong and Jason Cabañes, they outline the architecture and strategies employed by political operators to spread political messages. Their report, “Architects of Networked Disinformation: Behind the Scenes of Troll Accounts and Fake News Production in the Philippines“, found that the same tactics and skills employed by boutique agencies to push products and build reputation by tapping digital influencers are also used for political clients. (READ: Chief disinformation architects in the PH: Not exactly who you think)

Identifying the right influencers or “audience touch points” to channel your message is the final step in the campaign strategy:

High-level strategists also plot out how digital influencers and community-level fake account operators – vis-a-vis key opinion leaders – should carry the core campaign messages. The strategists designate particular roles for these operators: to seed messages, to amplify, to throw shade, or to agitate and provoke discussion. In line with the professional practice of micro-targeting, the strategists also ask these account operators to engage with existing networks of audiences, ranging from celebrity fan clubs to grassroots political communities.

These strategies help shape public opinion and insulate the general public from the fact that their information networks are less organic than they thought.

The study by Ong and Cabañes detailed how the message is shaped and localized and how these bleed into real groups and communities, influencing real people. The anonymous digital influencers tapped by strategists already have an existing organic core community that are fans of the posts, such as memes, hugot quotes, or celebrity loveteams, making them valuable personas with genuine reach. 

Translating the campaign plans of the ad and PR strategists into shareable content, they use snark, humor or inspirational messaging consistent with the social media personas they operate to post content that is favorable or unfavorable to particular politicians, often anchored by a hashtag agreed upon between them and the chief architects.

Without the disclousure that this content is paid, their followers are unconsiously fed propaganda, political messages, and narratives that are supportive of a politician or policy. What may have started out as spaces for harmless memes and inspirational quotes have now surrepititiously become part of a lucrative operation to reach out to an engaged organic demographic. 

Campaign finance and regulation

Apart from its impact in helping shape public discourse, the use of anonymous digital influencers and social media operations will also have tangible effects on how politicians run their campaigns and campaign spending.

Despite existing mechanisms for traditional ads by the Commission on Elections (Comelec), the use of digital and influencers still remains a free-for-all where lines between organic endorsement and paid messages are blurred.

As it is with traditional campaigns, it has been hard to get candidates to comply with existing campaign spending rules, and even harder for the Comelec to monitor and implement them. (READ: Can candidates spend like crazy on campaigns?)

With the architecture that employs boutique ad agencies and digital influencers in the mix, following the trail of who spent what, and where the money went becomes difficult because the messages and messengers bank on being perceived as organic.

In their paper, Ong and Cabañes recommended developing a “Political Campaign Transparency Act” to require disclosure of digital campaigning by the candidates, updating existing campaign finance laws. This poses challenges to the Comelec in terms of verification.

According to election lawyer Emil Marañon, when a supporter, for example, speaks up on his own about his candidate, that is considered legitimate free speech and is protected as such.

However, when syndicated social media operations are employed, either through bots or paid influencers, then it is deliberate campaigning, inorganic, and should be part of the declared campaign expenses of the candidate: “The bigger challenge is the operational side of this. How do you trace it back to the candidate? How will you link the paid influencers to the PR operator and finally to the candidate? For purposes of monitoring, regulation and prosecution if laws are broken along the way, how do you do it?”

Marañon said the Comelec faces two challenges: (1) the infrastructure and the manpower needed to trace and monitor these kinds of campaigns, and (2) antiquated election laws.

“We have antiquated election campaign laws made way back in 1985 and 1991 and the social media world is a new terrain. What Comelec is trying to do is trying to regulate a new terrain using antiquated laws. This approach could be problematic,” Marañon said.

For example, he continued, “Regulating and monitoring social media for campaign finance purposes is almost impossible. Comelec is severely undermanned to look at this while in the thick of election preparation and I don’t think that they can do digital forensics. There’s also no reportorial obligation for social media operations, unlike TV and radio ads. Ad agencies can easily say ‘We don’t know anything about the social media operations.'” 

Disclosure on the part of the candidates regarding their digital spending during campaigns is a good step towards more transparency and accountability.

However, given the nature of how the anonymous digital influencers work, deniability is still easy on the part of the operators, and the government agency tasked with regulation finds itself unprepared and battling a faceless enemy. – Rappler.com

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