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Opinion – Hold Influencers And Media Accountable

by Mike Futter on Jul 15, 2016 at 09:49 AM

Over the past few weeks, we’ve reported on a number of bad actors in the YouTube community. While these incidents relate directly to a proportionally small number of individuals, they expose a darker side of a community built on the backs of loyal fans.

YouTubers, streamers, and other such entertainers aren’t traditional media. They are part of a group called “influencers.” This marketing-insider term turned public-facing label exists for a reason. People like Tom “ProSyndicate” Cassell and Trevor “TmarTn” Martin have betrayed viewers’ trust. Others, like Lewis “PsiSyndicate” Stewart, outright lied to viewers, posting videos of rigged gambling.

You’d think that subscribers would be outraged. To be fair, some are. However, a large number of the comments on these videos not only forgive quickly, but help these swindlers rationalize their actions. 

Click each of these to enlarge.

On Twitter, we’ve seen the same fan-provided excuses in one form or another over and over again. 

You need to make money, so it’s fine."

I was entertained, so I don’t care if you lied to me.”

And my personal favorite, “The media is flailing and jealous, and influencers are the future.”

I want to make a few things clear. How you decide to consume your entertainment is your own business. Who you trust is a deeply personal decision. But media and “influencers” are not the same. The latter can’t replace the former. Influencers do not serve the same function as the media. They are called “influencers” because they do just that. They drive purchase decisions, which is why publishers like Warner Bros. (which was just slapped on the wrist by the FTC) spend millions of dollars paying them to say nice things about their products.

Some of them, like John Bain (TotalBiscuit) and Jim Sterling are critics, too. Others (many, in fact), while participating in some paid sponsorships, adhere to the FTC’s disclosure guidelines. But many still try to skirt the rules.

It would be naive to say that a rift between the media and some consumers in recent years doesn't exist. There is mistrust, and some (rightly) suggest that the media should be transparent about its relationships and draw a thick, indelible line between publishers and press.

If that mistrust has led you to influencers, again, that is a personal decision. My only request is that you hold those individuals to the same standard you claim to want from the media. Disclosure is important. It's why whenever we include Gamestop in a story, we indicate on first mention that it's our parent company. You need to know that in order to form an opinion with complete information.

When influencers wear multiple hats, moving seamlessly between independent voice and paid spokesperson, it can be hard to know what you're getting. That's why "clear and conspicuous" disclosure is so crucial. Without those statements up front and in the context of the video itself, a viewer could easily mistake paid promotion for honest impression.

In order to form a informed opinion about content presented in a video or print piece, you need to recognize what relationships, if any, are at play between the content creator and the subject. That includes understanding that while you think the writers in traditional media are beholden to advertisers (often not the case, as editorial and ad sales are completely different departments), some influencers are getting rich off of paid promotions.

Most recently, this emerged because the FTC linked Felix Kjellberg (Pewdiepie) to Warner Bros.’ failure to require “clear and conspicuous” disclosure on Shadow of Mordor videos. I don’t begrudge Kjellberg for his success. It’s damn impressive how he has cultivated an audience. What I do take issue with is his assertion that he was exempt from disclosing in accordance with the “clear and conspicuous” tenet of the FTC guide. Those benchmarks were published first in 2009 to address the “mommy blogger” phenomenon, as blog posts that were paid advertisements were indistinguishable from the rest of the content.

In 2015, the FTC clarified those rules to ensure that YouTubers weren’t able to claim ignorance any longer. Here’s the text that directly refers to YouTube:

Q: What if I upload a video to YouTube that shows me reviewing several products? Should I disclose when I got them from an advertiser?

A: Yes. The guidance for videos is the same as for websites or blogs. 

That clarification is what Pewdiepie and fans are using to defend against disclosure that doesn’t meet the “clear and conspicuous” standard. But even before the 2015 clarification, the FTC was speaking on the record about how YouTubers were held to the same standard as anyone else, including mommy bloggers, with regard to endorsements.

In July 2014, before Kjellberg posted his paid Shadow of Mordor video, FTC associate director Mary Engle had this to say to Gamasutra:

Generally speaking, if an advertiser or a marketer is paying someone to write favorable reviews, the reviewer needs to disclose that and that disclosure should be clear and conspicuous, and should be upfront and easy to see where the viewer won't miss it.

What we say is that it should be easily seen or viewed (or heard in the case of audio) by the consumer or by the viewer. It should be made within the endorsement message, and within the review. We don't prescribe particular words or phrases that need to be used, but some people might say 'this is a compensated review,' or 'I got this free to try.'

It should basically be unavoidable by the viewer.

A review in the FTC’s eyes is any opinion given about a product that is tied to compensation. It doesn’t need to be a “review” as video game enthusiasts typically view the format. It doesn’t need to have a score. It can be as simple as reacting to the product, as Kjellberg did in his video. Even though he doesn't believe he's a reviewer in the traditional sense, by the FTC's definition, that's exactly what he is.  

To be even clearer, Kjellberg did disclose his relationship in his video. The disclaimer was “below the fold” and not mentioned in the video itself. Per the FTC, this doesn’t pass muster. It was also more than others did, but with Pewdiepie the tallest tree in the YouTube cash forest, he’s going to catch more wind. All of this is not to condemn Kjellberg, especially as he was not the subject of the FTC complaint against WB. He was merely the most visible of influencers paid under the deal.

But the point remains. He should be held to the same standard you would expect of anyone else. That goes for media, influencers, bloggers, and every other person who is in a position of power with a following.

I don’t know where the media landscape is headed. I hope it is to a place of balance between traditional media and the entertaining entrepreneurs that have drawn millions of subscribers on YouTube and Twitch. But if media loses its place as the primary source of information, my hope is that viewers don’t ever stop questioning those in power. Ask the hard questions and demand transparency. Know who the voices you trust really serve.