Social and e-commerce platforms are struggling with their authenticity. In fact, their very design, a relentless pursuit of user growth and engagement, has rewarded the opposite behaviors which is why a culture and economy of fraud persists.
As seen with the degree of which fraudulent reviews and vanity metrics prevail, it’s far too easy to fake these types of behaviors. There were never enough parameters put in place from the start, and as seen below, platforms are now relying on human capital to remove bad actors and are largely unsuccessful because the pace at which technology is now able to replicate those behaviors is outpacing platforms’ abilities to police it.
Below we take a look at some of the biggest privacy and security issues and impacting influencer marketing and we analyze the consequential responses of both legal entities and social platforms.
Fake Reviews Continue to Plague Amazon, Facebook and eBay
A number of independent investigations into Amazon’s review economy have all unveiled similar notions: a growing number of reviews on Amazon are fake. The latest investigation in April 2019 analyzed 203 million Amazon reviews and found 11.3 percent (22.8m) of them to be untrustworthy.
Fake reviews on Amazon aren’t new – they’ve existed on Amazon since the e-comm platform was first created. However, according to the investigation, the problem appears to have intensified in 2015, when Amazon began to allow Chinese sellers into its ecosystem. The decision led to a 33 percent increase in new products,1 sparking intense competition among sellers to generate higher product ratings, which has resulted in the gamification of ratings and reviews.
In a similar vein, Facebook and eBay have also been warned to take urgent action to stop fake online reviews 1 that are being used by companies to deceive customers on their platforms.
The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) reported “troubling evidence” of a “thriving marketplace for fake and misleading online reviews.” Specifically, between November 2018 and June 2019, the CMA discovered 100 eBay listings offering fake reviews and 26 Facebook Groups where people offered to write fake reviews or businesses recruited people to do so.
Social Media Platform Respond by Moving Away from Vanity Metrics
Instagram Tests Hiding Likes
At the end of April 2019, Instagram began testing a change to the feed where the number of “Likes” on a post would be removed for all viewers of the post and only the creator would be able to see the cumulative count.
Per the leaked prototype, the social network describes the feature as follows: “Testing a Change to How You See Likes – We want your followers to focus on what you share, not how many likes your posts get. During this test, only the person who shared the post will see the total number of likes it gets.”
Influencer Marketing POV: Generally speaking, influencers are excited about the possibility of this change. As Ulia Pilmore of @Uliaali stated, “It makes me actually really excited for the change… Eliminating likes will make comments more important, will decrease the pressure of being ‘liked’ and will let creators focus on quality content and engagement with real people.”
With a bigger focus on mental health in our increasingly thirsty culture, social media platforms are forced to press reset. For Instagram in particular, the goal is to reduce the comparative pressure that dominates the feed, where users remove posts that don’t perform, engagement pods game the algorithm, and finstas are the lone destinations for ‘real’ content.
The update also signifies a move toward social proof, based on the fact that you can still see followed handles who also liked the post. It is, however, important to note that “likes” still matter. From how ‘likes’ factor into Insta’s algorithm to the fact that influencers are still valued based on engagement rates, as long as the economic drivers of this ecosystem are maintained, the culture will persist.
Psychologically, this move does democratize the playing field a bit, putting the emphasis back on authenticity and content quality. It could encourage the growth of micro-influencers and their value because the overt signal to like a post for likes’ sake will be removed, which favors influencers with higher reach.
Twitter Moves Away From Vanity Metrics
In an effort to make Twitter a healthier place, in April 2019, CEO Jack Dorsey said that the company is looking to change its focus from following specific individuals to tracking topics of interest.
Dorsey has said that he’s most worried about the quality of conversations on Twitter and specifically highlighted the need to rethink how Twitter incentivizes user behavior. He suggested that the platform works best as an “interest-based network,” where users can see content based on their interests no matter who posted it – instead of a network where users feel pressure to follow other accounts for the sole purpose of growing their own numbers.
Influencer Marketing POV: Both Instagram and Twitter appear to be making moves away from vanity metrics to focus more on content quality. However, even as platforms begin to move away from such metrics, as long as the demand for those metrics among marketers persists, the culture of fraud and gamification will persist – regardless of whether or not they’re visible publicly.
While the influencer economy is important, it’s still only a small percentage point of who’s using the platform every day. Again, it’s likely that the real reason that these platforms are making these monumental shifts in strategy is because of the mental health issues that have occurred as a result of time spent on their platforms and increasing pressures for regulation. The argument could be made that this is a way of ‘doing something’ without really doing anything at all.
YouTube’s Massive Subscriber Count Change
YouTube has announced plans to change the way subscriber counts are displayed on the site. Beginning in September 2019, YouTube will show a rounded number instead of showing precise totals.
While YouTube declined to comment on whether the update was related to the infamous high-profile feud between beauty YouTubers James Charles and Tati Westbrook, a company blog post said that the goal of the change was to create “consistency” on the platform and standardize the way it portrays subscriber counts.
Influencer Marketing POV: The change will affect YouTube API Services, which can be used by third parties like Social Blade to offer services such as live subscriber count analytics for any YouTube channel. Historically, the tool gave third parties access to precise subscriber count information that made live subscriber charts possible.
Similar to the changes to Instagram’s API last year and as platforms continue to restrict access to data by third parties, marketers will need to increase their reliance on first-party data strategies and partners – if they haven’t done so already.
Additionally, marketers need to understand how creators’ value extends far beyond their audience size as the optics of those metrics become outwardly less important, as seen with platforms like Instagram, Twitter, Reddit and now, YouTube, deprioritizing those metrics.
YouTube Tests Hiding Comments
As YouTube continues to face scrutiny regarding its inability to monitor and police hate speech, harassment, pedophilia and other grotesque behaviors that have run rampant on its platform, at the end of June it began testing yet another solution – the removal of comments all together.
Although only currently being tested in India, YouTube has confirmed with TechCrunch that it is testing an option where comments on videos are hidden by default.
Based on YouTube creators’ perspectives, it appears the change would not have a profound impact. As Bob Wulff of Wulff Den stated, “Most creators steer clear of them all together. I like to answer comments after the first few hours that my video goes up, because those are usually comments from my own subscribers. I like this sort of engagement, and I think my audience does too. After a couple of hours YouTube starts to suggest the video content to a wider audience, and that’s when the riff-raff comes in.’”
Influencer Marketing POV: With YouTube continuing to struggle to monitor bad actors and behaviors on its platform, it’s forced to press reset. Notably, this isn’t YouTube’s first time debating whether to remove comments. Earlier this year, the platform turned off comments on videos of children after an increasing amount of pedophilic comments were discovered. Now, with the platform under federal investigation for its alleged violations of children’s privacy, it’s likely that YouTube’s latest test is a direct result of the platform looking to avoid another federal investigation.
YouTube’s latest test to remove comments continues to emphasize an emerging trend – that like counts and comments are not only not reflective of influencers’ influence, but do more harm than good.
Platform-specific issues aside, the ongoing conversation and strategy around the removal of engagements/share metrics, as well as comments, speaks to the larger problems at hand – social media platforms’ inabilities to monitor this negative, aggressive, and abusive behaviors in a constructive manner. While major social media platforms unable (or unwilling) to police this type of behavior (and decide if they want to remove these features from public view entirely), it also opens up market space for new platforms that do value things like brand safety, authenticity and verified users to gain market share.
Google Considers Blocking Cookies
At the end of March 2019, Google was said to be having internal discussions about a number of changes to its consumer- and advertiser-facing tools, and is considering blocking third-party cookie targeting on Chrome and its Google Marketing Network.
According to sources close to the matter, Google teams want to placate consumers’ fears about data privacy, which have been growing exponentially since the Cambridge Analytica scandal. If Google Chrome was to block cookies, it would follow the implementation of third-party tracking restrictions on Apple’s Safari, Mozilla’s Firefox, and Brave’s offering.
Influencer Marketing POV:Although much will depend on if and how exactly Google implements its cookie-blocking approach, some entities will inevitably fare better than others. If the ability to target people is compromised, those who can enrich the buying experience behind the cookie will prevail.
As the industry moves to a cookie-less world, it’s important to consider how programmatic buying practices will shift. Instead of buying an audience, we could see a shift towards programmatic buying based on direct channels and influencers to reach that same audience (think: if your target audience is fashionable millennials in Boston, programmatically buying Boston-based fashion influencers to reach that demographic). In this scenario, waste is not only inevitable, but it’s also beneficial, as it gives marketers the opportunity to expand to relevant audiences and reach more consumers.
Legal Action – European Union Launches Copyright Directive
One of the biggest regulatory updates in recent months was the European Union’s Copyright Directive, which went into effect in April 2019. The controversial new law reforms how copyrighted content posted online is governed. The changes have proven to be controversial, with critics opposed to two specific parts of the law: Article 11 and Article 13.
Article 13 (AKA: “The Meme Ban”): The article states that any website that hosts large amounts of user-generated content (i.e., YouTube, Twitter, Facebook) are responsible for taking down that content if it infringes on copyright law.
Article 11 (AKA: “The Link Tax”): The article aims to get news aggregator sites, such as Google News, to pay publishers for linking and displaying article fragments on their platforms. Google has suggested it is pulling Google News from all of Europe until further notice.
The European Parliament said that memes, gifs, hyperlinks, and ‘snippets’ of articles would still be able to be shared freely, however. Wondering why Facebook is all-so publisher friendly, developing a Watch-like tab to “aggregate” news and Apple launched News+, a subscription to all news?
Who’s for the Copyright Directive?
Industry bodies representing content producers (lots of European music and media organizations) have declared their support. Mary Honeyball, British Labour EMP says, “Some [online platforms] fear that Article 13 requires the implementation of automated ‘upload filters.’ However, Article 13 makes no such requirement and in fact states that automated blocking should be avoided. The text only requires that [platforms] either license or remove copyrighted material.”2
Who’s against the Copyright Directive?
The Directive isn’t YouTube’s cup of tea and it’s the most vocal critic of Article 13. Matt Koval, a content strategist at YouTube argues that, in its current form, Article 13, “Threatens hundreds of thousands of creators, artists and others employed in the creative economy.”
Influencer Marketing POV: How will these platforms identify and remove copyrighted content when, as seen most recently with YouTube, even the combined efforts of AI and human reviewers can’t ensure rudimentary brand safety? Parliament seems to be wondering the same thing, as no one can quite agree on how these platforms are expected to identify and remove this content, and how these Directives will be applied consistently IRL. While an earlier version of the Article points to platforms needing to use “proportionate content recognition technologies” (AKA: automated filters) to scan all content and remove any that violates copyright law, the statute has since been removed.
For more on what the impact of increasing big tech regulation means for social media and influencer marketing, check out our Q2 2019 Influencer Marketing on Social Media Trend Report.