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Promoting More Transparent and Ethical Digital Influence in Social Media

Social Media 

Most readers would be aware of the notion of ‘six degrees of separation’ made popular in a play, film and party games, and used today to signify the reality that the world is getting smaller and more connected. Evidence of the world getting smaller is shown by the fact among the Facebook community there are only 4 degrees of separation. Among some specialist interest groups, studies have found only 2-3 degrees of separation.

The world is also getting flatter, and this includes information. In an internet and social media environment, information is more democratised as traditional gatekeepers (editors, critics, experts) hold less power and authority than in the past. Thanks to the Internet, every individual can be a writer, a publisher, a film maker and can express their views, even to the point of holding themselves out as an expert, even when they are not.

As described by Seth Godin and others, our geographically bound tribes are rapidly being replaced and extended by digital tribes. These tribes also have digital leaders and influencers who can both be a force for good or for harm. They are good when they are transparent and accurate in the information they provide and their intentions are to add value and make the world a better place.

They can do harm when they spread inaccurate information, examples being hate speech campaigns aimed at vilifying a particular group, misinformation health campaigns related to denying the benefits of fluoride to prevent tooth decay or the well documented benefits of immunisation. As a result of misinformation campaigns in the US, many people have ceased immunising their children with the result that the US has suffered the first significant outbreak of measles in decades.

Similarly, sellers today are increasingly going less directly to consumers and instead using ‘digital influencers’ who have developed large followings, especially on social media platforms such as WeChat, Twitter and YouTube. In our Information Society, digital tribes and influencers are using social media to make major changes in society, culture and behaviour.

As a result of the Internet, this influence operates on a larger scale than ever before. For example, groups can now cooperate on a huge scale to create a Wikipedia or crowd-source people to look for patterns among the billions of stars in the galaxy. In this environment we have expanded the number of relationships one can track and influence. People can even create alternative selves by virtually identifying as the opposite gender, or even designing a personal avatar.

In a particular country, consumer protection laws are likely to have been extended to cover the worst abuses of social media by prohibiting conduct that is misleading, deceptive, defamatory or fraudulent. Examples include laws in Australia governing consumer protection, copyright, defamation, privacy and fraud/passing off. Similar or parallel laws can be found in most countries.

Supplementing, but not in substitution for these ‘hard’ laws, are voluntary codes of conduct which both educate and promote best practice among the public and industry. A case in point is the recent release by the International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN) of Guidelines which cover three major aspects of Digital Influence.

The International Consumer Protection and Enforcement Network (ICPEN), formerly the International Marketing Supervision Network (IMSN), is a global network of consumer protection authorities which engages in dispute resolution and encourages cooperation between law enforcement agencies in relation to disputes arising from commerce across international borders. China has been a member since 2006. (

The new ICPEN guidelines cover three contexts.

1. Platform Administrators of Review Sites
Sites such as Trip Advisor and other product and service reviews (eg YELP) are urged to make transparent the terms and conditions according to which reviews are collected, moderated and published. Where anonymous reviews are allowed in order to promote privacy, the site should have some means to validate the authenticity of reviews and ferret out bogus or fake reviews. Positive and negative reviews should be treated the same and without bias. The reviews should be published in an objective and fair manner. The administrator should reveal any incentives they receive in relation to favourable reviews or other factors. The site should also have in place a set of procedures to deal with complaints.

2. Traders and Marketing Professionals
Businesses/traders should not offer rewards or incentives to induce positive reviews as to do so would be misleading to readers expecting to see unbiased reviews. Nor should they create fake positive reviews about their business or fake negative reviews of competitors. They should require that the site be transparent in relation to any incentives given by the traders or marketing professional. If paid for promotional material is provided to bloggers, tweeters and other social media contributors, the ‘commercial’ nature of the material should be disclosed as well as any relationships that exist between trader and review site.

3. Digital Influencers
The guidelines require digital influences should be genuine in their reviews. They should disclose any benefits they receive from the trader or marketing professional, including free product. If the influencer is relying on the opinion of others, this should be expressed. The influencer should not hold themselves out as having any particular expertise or authority that they do not in fact have. The influencer should reveal the nature of any particular expertise they do have and upon which they are relying. All such disclosures need not be in any particular form or legal language, but should be appropriate for the particular context.

Digital tribes and influencers are here to stay and the social media genii will not be put back into an Industrial Age bottle. Measure such as those found in the ICPEN guidelines are helpful along with a mix of education, soft law, regulation and hard laws. At the same time further and ongoing research is required to evaluate the impact of new technologies on our communities, our cultures, and our self-identity. In this way, we may hopefully help to ensure that we can reap the benefits of this new and exciting technology while avoiding unintended harmful consequences.

Dr Eugene Clark is Dean and Professor of Law, Sydney City School of Law:


16th September 2016