Beware the Microinfluencer

This dark money is largely unregulated, and no one in Washington is sounding the alarms.

On the eve of Mexico’s midterm elections in June, young people with social media followings ranging from tens of thousands to multiple millions flooded Instagram with impassioned pleas for their followers to turn out to vote for Partido Verde (Green Party). Youth engagement might sound promising for democracy, but most Mexicans were well aware of what was really going on: The social media posts were a coordinated campaign by Partido Verde to funnel money to young Mexican citizens in exchange for public support. The party provided scripts and ordered these secret spokespeople not to disclose that their posts were really campaign ads. 

The campaign was, to be honest, quite clumsy. It began suddenly, influencers repeated the same lines verbatim, and photos of the instructions that the party sent to influencers circulated on social media. It was an inelegant repetition of a tactic that they first tried in 2015

Though it failed, the Partido Verde’s unsophisticated campaign still offers a warning for all of us: the age of the undercover political influencer has arrived.

Influencers are people with social media accounts who are willing to use their platforms to market a product or cause. They build relationships with their followers that feel intimate and personal and then monetize that dynamic when people or companies pay them to promote something. These relationships are a powerful marketing tool, and businesses have responded accordingly. This year, the global influencer market is estimated to be worth $13.8 billion.

For political campaigns, these influencers offer direct access to an engaged audience and admiring followers. Rather than having to create a generally appealing platform and promote it through widely accessible channels like cable television, campaigns can deliver tailored messages to incredibly narrow constituencies. 

While political micro-influencers are making headlines in Mexico, the industry is quietly expanding in America. The first prominent use of micro-influencers in American politics was during the 2016 presidential race, when Hillary Clinton’s campaign paid three influencers through the media company Portal A to promote her campaign on YouTube. Then, in the 2020 election cycle, the campaigns of Donald Trump, Andrew Yang, Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders all sought help from micro-influencers during the primaries.

When asked about micro-influencers, a Democratic political strategist summed up the mood of his colleagues in two words: “We’re obsessed.

Those wishing to harm Western democracies are also prepared to exploit the new social media landscape. Earlier this year, a shadowy public relations company with supposed Russian ties offered money to European influencers to disparage the Pfizer vaccine on social media. The instructions were clear: “the material should be presented as your own independent view” and shouldn’t include any mention of “advertising” or “sponsored” content.

Given its potential to influence the trajectory of our elections, democracy, and even our public health, the almost complete absence of regulation enforcement around micro-influencing in America is worrisome. The Federal Election Commission (FEC) does require that sponsored political content online carry a disclaimer, but the law is murky when it comes to social media influencers. And because there is no mechanism for enforcing that disclosure, few people bother to include it. As a result, sponsored posts tend to be well-hidden, and they’re likely to stay that way.

Social media companies have promised to pick up the slack, but this doesn’t inspire confidence. We all remember how well self-regulation worked in 2016 when Russian trolls had free rein to pose as Americans on Facebook to create discord. A report released in June by Mozilla found that TikTok is especially vulnerable to covert influence even though it ostensibly outlawed all political ads. 

It’s important to note that these micro-influencer campaigns can be a valuable resource for disseminating important information. For example, a marketing agency hired by the White House recently started contacting teenage influencers to promote positive vaccine information among the hard-to-reach 12-18 age demographic. 

But just because there are potential benefits to micro-influencing doesn’t mean that the practice should go unchecked. With proper regulation and a vigilant regulatory body, micro-influencers can become an innocuous part of our electoral landscape. But unconstrained, these influencers could pollute social media platforms with clandestine ads placed by foreign entities or political campaigns trying to secretively promote their candidate. 

As it stands, this new dark money operation is largely unregulated, and no one in Washington is sounding the alarms. With the 2022 midterms fast approaching, elected officials should pass laws to reign in the practice of political micro-influencing. We must know whether social media posts are genuine political advocacy or just well-targeted political ads.

Uriel Epshtein is the Executive Director of the Renew Democracy Initiative as well as the founder and chairman of the Peace & Dialogue Leadership Initiative.

James Lewis is the Writing & Policy Associate at the Renew Democracy Initiative.