In this research guide, we will look at social media influencer content and learn how to think critically about the information they share. You will learn how to identify sponsored content and recognize different ways that social media content may be manipulated.
"A digital content creator or influencer is someonewhose online videos, photos or podcasts are followed, listened to and trusted by a sizable audience. They tend to specialize in a topic — beauty, lifestyle, pop culture and food are some of the most popular ones — but you’ll find influencers of all kinds."
"Want to be a social media influencer? Here are some tips for getting started". LA Times. August 31, 2021.
Social media influencers have a lot of...well, influence. They have large numbers of followers so their content can reach far and wide. Most influencers have built trust with their audience which means they may be seen as reliable and credible sources. However, not all influencer content is created equally. Some of it may be highly edited or manipulated and some may be sponsored. While a lot of influencers create content that is meant for entertainment, it is important to be able to distinguish between that type of content and sponsored or manipulated content.
Sponsored content is when a company partners with an influencer to promote their products, brand, and messaging, or to raise brand awareness (Mediakix).
For example, a fashion influencer may work with a shoe brand to create a sponsored Instagram post for a new pair of sneakers. The influencer might post a picture of herself while wearing the shoes while she kicks back in the seat of her private jet. Sponsored content often seems like less of a traditional advertisement because it is coming from the influencer rather than from the brand itself. However, it is still an ad. It is important to remember that the influencer most likely received the shoes for free and/or payment from the brand for posting. The sponsored post doesn’t necessarily reflect how the influencer truly feels about the product.
Just like with traditional advertising, the intent of sponsored content is to get you to buy the product. Influencers present the product in a way that makes it look appealing to you. If those sneakers are poor quality and fall apart easily, the influencer probably won’t mention that. It is in their interest to make the sneakers as attractive as possible so they sell which increases the likelihood of getting more work with the brand.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has regulations that social media influencers must follow when they post sponsored content. Basically, influencers must make it known that the post or video is sponsored. When you see/hear that disclaimer, you should view that post as an advertisement. While there is nothing inherently wrong about influencers and sponsored content, it is important for us as consumers to be aware of the type of content we are viewing. Remember that the purpose of the post is to get you to buy the product. Don’t be easily influenced just because an influencer is pushing a product.
Another important piece to remember is that not all influencers may abide by the requirements set forth by the FTC. Think critically about the content the influencer is posting. If it looks like or sounds like an ad, it just may be.
Check out Disclosures 101 for Social Media Influencers from the FTC for more information about what influencers should be telling you about sponsored posts.
Have you ever heard the saying, "a picture is worth a thousand words"? This means that a single image is strong enough to convey a message or evoke an emotional response more effectively than the text describing it. Images are powerful and they can impact how the audience thinks and feels. Since not all images and videos portray an accurate representation of a person or a situation, it is important that we analyze influencer content (which is usually visually based) so we can be more informed about how their content may be manipulated. There are a few ways that content can be manipulated. We will discuss two such means: edited photos and staged photos.
Edited and Posed Photos
Edited, filtered, cropped, and posed photos are pretty commonplace on social media and can reinforce unrealistic and unattainable beauty and lifestyle standards. Check out these side by side real vs. posed examples of instagram pictures.
While it may seem like edited and filtered images are just an accepted part of social media, it is important to be conscious of this when scrolling through your feed. Research has shown that viewing edited images of selfies, can have tremendous ramifications on one’s own body image. The research study Picture Perfect: The Direct Effect of Manipulated Instagram Photos on Body Image in Adolescent Girls, found a direct link between viewing manipulated Instagram photos and lower body image. Read more about the connection between body image and social media pictures in these articles.
You may have been aware that selfies are routinely edited, but did you know that those picture perfect backgrounds may not really be part of the influencer’s lifestyle?
Remember that private jet from the sponsored sneaker post? It could be a studio. Photos that portray a perfectly organized kitchen may just be a rented space. Think that’s all? There are companies that will fake your vacation photos for you or put your picture against stunning backdrops. Your favorite influencer's Instagramable vacation photos may not be as authentic as you think. It is important to recognize that these types of unrealistic and unattainable lifestyle images or "lifestyle envy" can lead to feelings of inadequacy and mental health issues, so be mindful of these social media gimmicks as your scroll.
Social media influencers post a wide range of content. It is important to be able to identify these different types of posts and think critically about the information when scrolling through your feed so that you can maintain a realistic and level-headed view of your life, your body image, your relationships, etc. Sponsored content is a form of advertising and should be viewed as such. Filtered, edited, posed, and misleading content is common on social media, so you should be aware of the different ways content can be manipulated. Analyze influencer content with a critical eye as you would other types of information you find online. As you look at posts ask yourself:
Check out the Evaluating Information Research Guide for more information about evaluating online content.
Remember... "Everyone on the internet? They're not having as great a time as you think they are."