Influencer hit piece from Gizmodo reveals media’s huge double-standard on disclosures

September 18, 2023

By Tim Worstall

Should influencers have to reveal when they’re being paid for what they say? Gizmodo says yes – or at least that this is a “matter for concern” – when we are talking about TikTok dieticians and Big Food: “A new report reveals a major campaign by influencers peddling aspartame to followers, but not disclosing that they’d been paid by a soda company trade group.”

We have to admit we’re less bothered because we did bother to understand what was being said: 

“…a campaign that was pushed on TikTok using the hashtag #safetyofaspartame. During this campaign, TikTok creators like Steph Grasso, Cara Harbstreet, and Mary Ellen Phipps urged their followers not to worry about the effects of the artificial sweetener after the World Health Organization released hazard guidance on it this spring and summer. However, these influencers did not clearly disclose that they were paid by the lobbying group known as American Beverage, which represents the likes of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.”

 And also: 

“The buck doesn’t stop at aspartame, however. The report found that some dietitians in Canada were paid by the Canadian Sugar Institute, which reposted content from those dietitians to its own Instagram page. Canadian Sugar Institute is a non-profit that receives funding from sugar producers in the country.”

So the anti-sugar and pro-aspartame crowd run ads – sorry, paid influencer posts — saying one thing, the anti-aspartame and pro-sugar crowd run ads – sorry, paid influencer posts – saying the opposite and we as rational adults get to process that information and decide what we want to do about it. Sounds pretty First Amendment to us.   

OK, maybe there is a case for insisting that folk tell us when they’re being paid. Maybe there isn’t – that’s not the point we want to make here. 

Instead, who has to declare seems to be based upon some moral, ethical or even political estimation of who the people making the payment are. Take the example of Harry Sisson, a social media influencer with 700K followers on TikTok. The DNC pays the PR firm that represents him. Or, perhaps, the DNC pays the PR management company to reach out. Either way, we have the same thing. A flow of money to encourage Harry to post nice things about the Biden Administration – and boy, does Harry deliver.

We can even agree – as Harry himself insists – that he’s not making a living from this. But “pay” is a thing much broader than mere money. Access to famous or important people is a form of pay; soothing or boosting a teenage ego is pay. 

But one of these has to be declared. Apparently, one doesn’t, and it’s rude of us to even inquire about. The rule apparently is that if the payers are good people – like the DNC – then we’re being objectionable to object. But if it’s Big Food, capitalists, then we’re objectionable if we don’t.

Which does bake into the system the very thing we’re arguing about. If only the people with the right – or, in this case, left – ideas get to speak publicly and silently, then we’ve already privileged one form of speech over others. This is precisely what that First Amendment is all about – we don’t do that. All speech is privileged exactly and precisely so as not to tip the balance.    


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