Influencers have become an accepted part of the online experience, but without any serious effort to police them, many are profiting from misleading Australians, deliberately or otherwise.
Now a new report from The Australian Institute, a progressive think tank, argues Australia has been too slow to regulate the group who wield great power with little responsibility.
“Social media influencers are profiting while spreading misinformation and shoddy advice online,” Jordan Guiao, a research fellow from the Institute’s Centre for Responsible Technology (CRT), said.
“It is a criminal offence to provide unlicensed medical and financial advice, yet many influencers are doing just that on social media.”
Guiao says there are just “two self-regulating codes overseeing” the group. That’s because, despite amassing enormous followings often larger than those of traditional media outlets, influencers aren’t subject to many of the same rules that minimise the potential for harm.
Nor is there the same scrutiny of their credentials, as highlighted by the rise of unqualified financial influencers who preach on everything from emergency funds to cryptocurrencies.
While Financial Services Minister Jane Hume has rejected previous calls to action, Australia’s financial watchdog appears to be taking note. ASIC this week confirmed it was reviewing the space and would re-evaluate its terms of engagement.
While the regulator has previously warned it would fine those who provide unlicensed financial advice online, and asked the public to dob in guilty parties, the behaviour continues unabated.
Subsequently, Guiro argues that Australia cannot afford to sit on its hands any longer, as bad actors spread bad advice, conspiracy theories and disinformation, especially concerning the pandemic.
“We think it’s the right time for the government and its regulators to review this space, given that it’s increasingly profitable and affects many thousands of Australians who take influencers’ advice to heart.”
What to do about rogue influencers
To that effect, the CRT has outlined how regulators could get on top of the fast-growing space.
Firstly, the Centre says existing advertising rules should cover influencers given the movement of ad dollars into their pockets. These checks would ensure the accuracy and transparency of content “to prevent inaccurate and problematic information from being shared”.
Secondly, it believes regulators, particularly the ACCC, have underestimated the collective impact and reach of smaller accounts. It wants the watchdog to investigate medium-sized profiles as well as larger ones, considering their combined reach.
Finally, the CRT wants policymakers to treat online influencers the same way they would offline ones when it comes to providing advice. Whether medical or financial, Guidao disputes the idea that online actors should be able to provide unqualified, and potentially harmful, advice without consequences or oversight.
“Properly qualified accounts could have markers which differentiate them, like official watermarks or labels verifying them as professionals and highlighting profiles that are unqualified,” the CRT wrote.
Those who break the rules would risk “significant penalties and deplatforming”, linking their income to the quality of their content.