Written evidence submitted by The Creator Union
The DCMS Committee is inviting written submissions by 6pm on Friday 7 May addressing the following areas:
The Creator Union (TCU)
The Creator Union is in the process of registering as a union in the UK. TCU seeks to represent digital creators who work and earn their money online. Whether through influencer work or as a result of their work on social media.
Digital content creators in the UK are a largely female industry and they face a raft of issues including discrimination, unfair pay, contracts and working conditions. TCU will campaign for fair conditions, offer legal support and hopes to work with the Government to contribute to the valuable work done by the DCMS as the industry grows in the coming years.
How would you define ‘influencers’ and ‘influencer culture’? Is this a new phenomenon?
There are two routes to becoming an influencer:
The first category of influencer is not a new phenomenon, celebrities and reality stars were prominent in the media for decades and their influence was used to sell products from straight forward adverts, product launch events and brand ambassadorships. They had a more limited route to their audience, one which required traditional media coverage, but they were actively using their image to endorse and advertise.
The second category have risen with the ability to reach an audience without the need for gatekeepers. First through blogs and online journals and then through social media, ordinary people were able to share ideas, thoughts and experiences. The influence of this group is earned through the influencers’ ability to create a vision that the audience buy into, their taste and opinion is trusted which is why companies also value the work of this group.
Both groups might take part in social media advertising on their platform or by creating content for a brand’s platforms. However, taking paid work on this basis isn’t the only marker of being a digital influencer. Many influencers use their platform to influence social change without engaging in public advertising or work.
People working as influencers are in the majority women and the lack of gatekeeping has given women a voice in the world like no other time in history. This also leads to sexism and dismissal in the way influencers are written about.
Influential individuals are not a new phenomenon – high profile people have used their platform to change politics and fashion for centuries. What is new, is the ability for brands to reach consumers using a wide variety of influential people on multiple platforms.
Influencing and general use of social media are not completely separate phenomenon. One reason influencer content is impactful is because it fits naturally with what people share organically to social platforms. Popular culture and influencers feed into each other perpetuating a faster life cycle of trends than in the ecosystems of the 1900s.
The majority of digital creators see their role as an influencer in a serious light, they care about their reputation and the wellbeing of their followers. Often their work is not divorced from the issues which affect people within their niche and campaigns to change society for the better have come from people who have used social media influence to unite people behind a cause.
Two examples of how British influencers use their platform to achieve political change are Gina Martin who successfully campaigned to change the law on upskirting and Anna Whitehouse uses her platform as a parent influencer to campaign for flexible working for parents. Both use a combination of digital influence and traditional media and lobbying.
Gina Martin: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-47902522
Anna Whitehouse: https://www.motherpukka.co.uk/flex/
Influencers affect culture positively by advocating for inclusion and meaningful work to stamp out racism. Many Black UK creators have dedicated time on their platforms to educating audiences in the ways racism manifests itself, how it harms people and what work needs to be done to overcome the effects of racism. By creating more spaces for these conversations to take place creators are able to change entrenched or unexamined prejudices.
Nicole Ocran speaking on the way Black women and girls are treated: https://www.instagram.com/p/CCAqLvBBZpV/
Shu Lin has spoken in the media and through her channels on the rise in and impact of Asian hate: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TfjM3uRSB1M
Candice Brathwaite has raised the profile of diversity in depictions of motherhood and the disproportionate maternal deaths of Black women in the uk: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-47115305
Social media gives people from minority ethnicities a way to speak directly to audiences and create content for minority audiences without the need for gatekeeper permission. For example, Black creators are able to create beauty content specific to Black skin tones and hair types and fill in a massive gap left by traditional media and advertisers. Talent is able to grow and careers form because people are able to use the tools of influence and social media.
Karen Arthur’s Monopause Whilst Black podcast and instagram bring togetherhealth information for Black women going through menopause: https://www.instagram.com/menopausewhilstblack/?hl=en
Kristabel Plummer’s video helping Black women source flesh toned tights: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SszmtPpYhe8
Nyome Nocholas-Williams campaigned to change instagram’s policy on nudity which was disproportionatly affecting fat and Black women: https://www.businessinsider.com/instagram-nudity-policy-change-nyome-nicholas-williams-breast-squeezing-2020-10?r=US&IR=T
Influencers often provide a lifeline to isolated communities for example the disabled community or new parents. High profile creators can become a voice for change showing audiences ways to change behaviour to include marginalised communities both overtly and through example.
On a more everyday level, creators influence consumer choices in every industry from which new gadget to buy to which soft furnishings will tie a room scheme together. Consumers turn to the voices they trust online when making these decisions either by reading their recommendations, saving ideas for later or by asking for an opinion directly, influencers (particularly category two influencers) are embedded as a part of consumer culture.
Some elements of influencer culture can have a negative effect, for example the performative fast fashion consumption encouraged by haul videos and the impact on disordered eating caused by people sharing unqualified dieting and exercise advice.
There are many influencers who use their platform to promote misinformation such as ideas against vaccination or to deny Covid for example and they pose a threat to public health. While these people may not spring to mind when you imagine influencers the potential for harm from advice on social media should not be overlooked especially when it relates to the health of audiences.
Is it right that influencers are predominantly associated with advertising and consumerism, and if not, what other roles to influencers fulfil online?
In the press, influencers are most frequently associated with advertising and consumerism. This is the work that’s most visible and, for those who work in this field full time, most viable. It stands to reason that influencers will largely be associated with advertising as it is a $5bn industry currently.
Other roles influencers fulfil are: community hubs, activism, political engagement, rights advocates, friendship, educators, consumer champions. Often, this work is unpaid and under-appreciated as part of the creators’ work.
Influencers are able to help change behaviours as evidenced by the government running influencer campaigns for public health issues in 2020.
How are tech companies encouraging or disrupting the activities of influencing?
Tech companies and, in particular social media giants, rely on the creations of influencers to entertain the audiences who use their products. As lovely as an update from your uncle is, it is not the key factor driving people to log on and keep using social media.
Sadly, few companies provide support or large scale education, Pinterest being an exception (although they are a discovery platform, not a social platform – they work hard to support and elevate the creator community in the UK).
Facebook and Instagram along with YouTube use algorithms to select which content a user sees when they log on. On Facebook and Instagram this is driven by who the user is following, on YouTube it’s a mix of following and previous interests. TikTok’s algorithm offers the user a far wider base not reliant on having followed creators, it’s a blend of interest and what is popular on the app as well as creators you follow. TikTok’s algorithm is the most equitable for creators as it serves content which has few likes to viewers as freely as it serves content with many likes. Facebook and Instagram rely on you already having a following and those followers clicking like or commenting before they’ll share content more widely and YouTube works in a similar way but also links topics of videos allowing viewers to discover new creators through recommended videos. Algorithms are often bemoaned by creators and retailers alike. There is a perception that paid content doesn’t perform as well and so hiding the fact that it is an ad can be encouraged to overcome this.
Instagram have announced that they will be creating a platform to connect advertisers with creators. There are valid concerns that this will lead to pricing being depressed by the platform, relationships being taken away from the individual creators (each of whom is a small business) and to the parent company, Facebook, running the programme simply as a way to take a cut of the money people have made independently without support from the platform.
TikTok’s creator fund is a direct method of supporting the people whose videos make the platform so exciting to use. Creators who reach a certain level of following and meet the criteria can automatically apply to the fund and earn money for the videos people view. This is an innovative move in social media influencing and it reflects the value that creators and influencers provide to the platforms.
How aware are users of the arrangements between influencers and advertisers? Should policymakers, tech companies and influencers and advertisers themselves do more to ensure these arrangements are transparent?
The majority of influencers in category two work hard to make sure their relationships are transparent. There is no formal training or one stop shop for information on the responsibilities of the creator when starting out as an influencer (The Creator Union hope to create this resource) which leads to new influencers being completely unaware of requirements for disclosure.
Category one influencers most commonly work with traditional agents and there should be no doubt of the requirements to disclose adverts. Unfortunately a large number of complaints upheld by the ASA relate to influencers in this group.
We think the platforms, Instagram in particular, could do more to support good practice. They have a specialist creator account and features to disclose ‘paid partnership with…’ on posts. It would be possible for them to require agreements from the creator before being able to access these features or to direct them to reminders or messages from the ASA. It would be impactful to bring this in for celebrity accounts or for those who receive a blue checkmark as they often have the largest reach and influence people who seek to emulate them.
Advertisers and agencies need to do more to require clear disclosure. Too frequently, creators are asked to not be transparent in order to help the content do better. This behaviour should face consequences as they are causing inexperienced influencers to ignore the ASA guidelines which is in nobody’s interest but the advertisers’.