September 27, 2021
Dr Samantha Murton, president of the Royal NZ College of GPs, has spoken out (opens new window) about the problems of social media "influencers" who spread wellness misinformation online. Although many influential people on social media are followed because they have celebrity status - sports stats, TV celebrities, etc - many influencers have built their following purely based on their social media work, posting on topics that people want to read about, and pushing for people to "like and subscribe" using a variety of often dubious tactics.
Influencers have always been a weird edge case when it comes to advertising, communicating with thousands of followers through social media (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, etc) and being paid by companies to promote their products. Often these promotions are very subtle, and come across more as a helpful review or a handy tip for the followers, and the public can end up not realising that influencers are being paid to showcase the products they feature.
Although not all influencers promote pseudo-scientific ideas, there’s a lot of it out there. Promotion of ideas like the Law of Attraction (where if you think of something hard enough you can make it happen), cleanses and detoxes, supplements and even anti-vax ideas. Many of the products they promote are well known to Skeptics for their illegal advertising claims, dubious tactics and overpriced, unproven products.
The influencer promotion scene has been described as the Wild West of advertising, with a blurring of the boundaries between genuinely and honestly reviewing a good product and promoting anything a company’s willing to pay enough money for. A recent undercover sting operation (opens new window) by the BBC found that some well known influencers, with around a million followers, were willing to promote an imaginary diet drink, Cyanora, containing deadly hydrogen cyanide - even agreeing to mention the chemical’s name in their adverts. They also indicated they’d be happy to lie to their followers and say they had tried the drink when they hadn’t.
Pete Evans (opens new window), the Australian celebrity chef, has used social media extensively to promote all sorts of nonsense, including a "BioCharger" device in the early days of COVID which he claimed could treat the virus. It turns out it was just a very expensive plasma lamp. At least in Pete’s case he’s had both his Facebook and Instagram pages removed for promoting dangerous nonsense - many influencers fly under the radar, and don’t receive enough complaints that social media companies bother with them.
I think that being an influencer often comes with an overabundance of self-confidence - after all, these are people who consider their lives to be important enough that others will be interested in viewing a constant stream of pictures and videos of what they do in their day to day lives. Influencers with this kind of confidence can end up under the misapprehension that their "reckons" are more important than scientific truths.
To an extent this is likely evolution at work - not all influencers are great at attracting a large audience, but the ones that are will have found ways to maximise their followers and maximise their profits. So it’s likely that the more ethical influencers have mostly fallen by the wayside, while the more ruthless ones thrive on promoting anything and everything that will get them more views and more money.
And, as much as it sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory, there’s good evidence (opens new window) that both Russia and China are utilising social media as a way to undermine Western efforts to combat COVID, including the more popular vaccines (both China and Russia have their own vaccines - Sinovac and Sputnik V.). Recently a set of fake accounts suspected to be run on behalf of the Russian government (via a company called Fazze) have been posting anti-vaccine messages and trying to pay influencers to repost these messages to their followers. Although several influencers rejected the offer of cash in return for secretly promoting mis-quoted statistics about the Western vaccines, at least two influencers - from India and Brazil - made the videos (opens new window) they were asked to (and were presumably paid for it).
Thankfully the Advertising Standards Authority in New Zealand has stepped in with some guidelines (opens new window) for our influencers, and have made several decisions that set some well-needed precedent. While not explicitly mentioning medical claims, they do make it clear that paid promotions by social media influencers are considered to be advertising, and therefore presumably come under the Therapeutic and Health advertising code. I’ve never complained about an advert from an influencer before, as that’s really not the kind of content I usually consume online, but maybe I need to test the waters with this one by finding an influencer who is promoting a product using dodgy therapeutic claims, and seeing what the ASA does when I submit a complaint.