UK regulator to investigate social media influencers

UK regulator to investigate social media influencers

A number of celebrities and social media stars are being investigated by the Competition and Markets Authority, which says it has concerns that some influencers are failing to disclose that they are being paid for their endorsements.

In the early days of social media, Instagram and Facebook were seen as ways to connect with those closest to us, and to provide an insight into our private lives. Today however, models and celebrities can make thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of dollars with every photo they post, simply by featuring a product in their image. This nuanced form of targeted marketing deliberately blurs the line between “advertising” and “personal” sharing, and it’s big business. According to the Financial Times, Instagram influencers earned more than $1bn (£770m) in 2017.

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Pictured here is Chiara Ferragni, Italian fashion writer, influencer, businesswoman; and the first-ever blogger to be the focus of a Harvard Business School case study. Is this post of hers an advertisement, or is she just sharing the love?

Under American law, companies who work with influencers (defined as “key individuals with significant social media followings”) to promote products, services, or brands must follow certain rules, many of which are set out in Title XVI (Commercial Practices) of the Code of Federal Regulations. In particular, when there exists a connection between the endorser and the seller of the advertised product that might materially affect the weight or credibility of the endorsement, such connection must be fully disclosed. (16 C.F.R. §§ 255.0-255.5).

In practice, this means that when a company pays an individual – either in cash, or through discounts, free travel, or products – the company and influencer should enter a written contract. The contract should oblige the influencer to both “disclose its material connection to the advertiser clearly and conspicuously,” as well as “refrain from making any false or misleading statements about the products and services.”

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nearly identical post to Chiara’s above, but Victoria at inthefrow here has included #ad. Is that clear and conspicuous enough?

Here in the United Kingdom, where influencers are paid to promote, review or talk about a product on social media, the law requires that this must be made clear. The use of editorial content that promotes a product –also known as “advertorials” or “native advertising”– must clearly identify that the company has paid for the promotion.

Earlier this month, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) launched an investigation into whether consumers are being misled by celebrities who do not make clear that they have been paid, or otherwise rewarded, to endorse products online. In its press release, the CMA announced that it has already written to a range of celebrities and social media influencers to request information about their posts and the nature of the agreements they have in place with brands. This comes just weeks after Made in Chelsea star Louise Thompson was slapped on the wrist for failing to disclose an Instagram post as a paid-for advertisement for watchmaker Daniel Wellington.

The regulator is also asking consumers to share their experiences, and says it would “particularly benefit from hearing from people who have bought products which were endorsed on social media.”

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Notice that this post says at the top, “paid partnership with.” Is that better than #ad?

The investigation is being carried out under Part 8 of the Enterprise Act 2002 in respect of potential breaches of the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008. If an influencer ignores the CMA’s requests to comply with the law, an enforcement order in court. As for next steps, breaching such an order can lead to an unlimited fine or a jail term of up to two years. However, examples of meaningful penalties are still almost non-existent.

What do you think? Are influencer adverts easy enough to spot, without the hashtags and caveats? Interestingly, a study by Bazaarvoice and Morar Research found that nearly half of the 4,000 UK consumers polled are “fatigued” by repetitive influencer content. The majority also said they felt influencers were publishing content that was “too materialistic” and “misrepresented real life.” Notwithstanding this, the World Federation of Advertisers reported that 65% of multinational brands plan to increase their influencer investment. Perhaps there’s truth in what Chiara herself once quipped: “some loved me, some hated me—but they all followed me.”

 

Interested in this topic? Be sure to check out The Fashion Law’s Annual Brand and Influencer Report: The Good, Bad, and Highly Problematic. Featured photo above is Lena Perminova at Paris Fashion Week Autumn/Winter 2018 | Source: Getty Images

Is posting rap lyrics on Instagram a #HateCrime?

Is posting rap lyrics on Instagram a #HateCrime?

A teenager who posted rap lyrics on Instagram has been convicted of “sending a grossly offensive message over a communications network,” which was uplifted to a hate crime. She has received a community order (probation) and must pay costs of £500 ($700 USD) together with a £85 victim surcharge.

Chelsea Russell, a 19 year-old woman from Liverpool, England posted the lyrics from American rapper Snap Dogg’s song, “I’m Trippin” (NSFW) onto her Instagram account profile, or “bio.” The lyrics in question were ‘kill a snitch n—-a and rob a rich n—-a.’

Russell claimed she posted the lyrics as a “tribute” following the death of a 13-year-old in a road traffic accident. A screen shot of her profile was sent anonymously to Merseyside Police’s Hate Crime Unit, and Russell was brought in for questioning. She attempted to claim that her Instagram was not public as only Instagram members could access it, but the Crown proved in court that anyone could see Russell’s bio.

Russell’s defence lawyer, Carole Clark, claimed that the meaning of the ‘n’ word has changed over time, and has been popularised by hugely successful and mainstream artists including Jay-Z, Eminem and Kanye West. In particular, “Jay-Z used these words in front of thousands of people at the Glastonbury festival.” Clark also pointed out that the spelling of the word ended in an “-a,” rather than the arguably more pejorative “-er.” Nevertheless, District Judge Jack McGarva found Russell guilty and added, “there is no place in civil society for language like that.”

Under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, it is an offence to send a message that is grossly offensive by means of a public electronic communications network. Section 145 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 provides for an increased sentence for aggravation related to race.

Under the Crown Prosecution Service’s guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media, before heading to trial, there must be sufficient evidence that the communication in question is more than:

  • Offensive, shocking or disturbing; or
  • Satire, parody, iconoclastic or rude; or
  • The expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion, banter or humour, even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it.
“Freedom of expression is applicable not only to ideas that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb the State, or any sector of the population.”
—European Court of Human Rights decision in Handyside v United Kingdom (1976)
It may be tempting to see this verdict as an overreach by Crown Prosecution Services, or “political correctness” gone mad. However, the lyrics Russell chose to share don’t simply drop the N-bomb. These lyrics may be understood as encouraging killing and robbing of a particular type of person — ie, black men.

The distinction between “offensive” and “grossly offensive” is an important one and not easily made. Context and circumstances are highly relevant.  The legal test for “grossly offensive” was stated by the House of Lords in Director of Public Prosecutions v Collins [2006] UKHL 40 to be whether the message would cause gross offence to those to whom it relates – in that case ethnic minorities – who may, but need not be the recipients.

Accordingly, there is a high threshold at the evidential stage. The Crown must also consider an author’s rights of expression enshrined in the European Convention of Human Rights. Extreme racist speech is outside the protection of Article 10 because of its potential to undermine public order and the rights of the targeted minority (Kuhnen v Germany 56 RR 205).

Article 10 – Freedom of expression

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.

2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

Russell’s case brings to mind the similar legal battle of Paul Chambers. Frustrated that his travel plans had been disrupted by bad weather, in 2010 he tweeted about blowing up an airport and was subsequently arrested. His conviction attracted public outroar and became a cause célèbre for freedom of speech activists before being overturned on appeal (Chambers v Director of Public Prosecutions [2012] EWHC 2157).

However, there are considerable differences of fact between Russell’s Instagram bio and Chambers’s tweet. Chambers’s tweet mentioned the weather delay — the all important context — and his “threat” lacked menace, because it did not create fear or apprehension in those who read it. Russell may have been quoting a song lyric, but isolated from any other information, her words could reasonably be (mis)interpreted as a genuine threat.

Unfortunately, only limited information is available on Russell’s case, so it is not possible to fully analyse how the Crown determined that it was indeed in the public interest to pursue prosecution. I would assume however that there were some extenuating circumstances. Perhaps Russell had a history of offensive behaviour, or maybe the prosecution proved that the lyrics were intended to cause malicious upset to a grieving family?

While the legal principles and their application may be uncertain in situations such as these, this case underscores the need for a cautious approach to social media. At times, even though I recognise intellectually that my Twitter and Instagram feeds are “public,” the fact that I share personal insights and photos makes the platform seem perhaps more intimate and secure than it really is. Social media is like any other “community,” for which certain rules of decorum do apply.