The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

Will the FEC finally rein in political influencers on social media?

Voters pass a sign outside a polling site in Warwick, R.I., Monday, Nov. 7, 2022, after casting their ballots on the last day of early voting before the midterm election. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

In the endless battle for consumers’ digital attention, conventional advertisers bid on ad space for custom audiences. They place infant clothing promos in new parents’ social media sidebars and banner ads for video games on websites frequented by teenagers. Our own behavioral data is used to sway us with targeted marketing. There is, though, some regulation and standardization of this commercial space online.  

When it comes to the regulation of political social media influencers, though, chaos reigns. 

Social media influencers are individuals who have social clout and significant followings on specific platforms, for specific topics, and within specific communities. They use this clout to advertise commercial, social, or — increasingly — political causes: including during the 2020 U.S. presidential election

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) strictly regulates disclosure rules for influencers who want to advertise commercial products — and it enforces these rules. When the tea company Teami promoted supposed health benefits as a result of drinking its tea, regulators called the claims deceptive. Later, when several of the influencers that Teami paid did not disclose being connected to the company, the FTC stepped in and sued. 

Similarly, when an influencer makes recommendations to invest in securities, this must be disclosed as well. Kim Kardashian learned this the hard way when she had to pay the Securities and Exchange Commission $1 million after promoting investment in a cryptocurrency company without disclosing that she received $250,000 from the very same organization. 

But political speech is treated quite differently than commercial speech in the United States — it is trickier to navigate and regulate. 

During previous election cycles in the United States, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg (D) harnessed social media influencers to hype his campaign. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Donald Trump, former Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang and Vice President Kamala Harris have all done the same. More recently, Pennsylvania’s new Sen. John Fetterman (D) recruited former “Jersey Shore” star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, who made fun of Fetterman’s opponent, Mehmet Oz, in a widely watched video

Disclosure requirements? Nah. 

When it comes to political influencers being paid by political campaigns, the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) is the regulatory agency responsible for creating and enforcing rules around political advertising. Yet it did not issue strict disclosure guidelines for influencers — until recently. In the fall of 2022, the FEC proposed new rules that require disclosures when money is paid for political causes, which also would include influencers. 

But on one key point, the FEC seems unsure how to go about things. This relates to situations wherein campaign comms fall into the purview of ‘public communication.’ The FEC recently asked if — in addition to content that is ‘placed for a fee’— content that is “promoted for a fee” must also be disclosed. 

Researchers at policy nonprofits such as the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University and the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University have argued that regulation of paid and promoted digital content regulation would be a major breakthrough for democracy. Meanwhile, other organizations have been less than pleased at the prospect of such a policy, including Citizens United. This, of course, is the same nonprofit known from Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court decision that allowed corporations and other groups to spend unlimited amounts on elections, as long as they were not coordinating with parties or candidates. As a result of that decision, super PACs now critically shape how U.S. elections play out. Arguments against the proposed FEC rule suggest that it would be overly broad and that it would lead to chilling effects

In our research at the Center for Media Engagement’s Propaganda Research Lab, we spoke with political influencers who are active on TikTok and Instagram. We also interviewed experts and marketers intimately familiar with the political influencer ecosystem. In a brand-new research article, we document how political campaigns use influencers to promote social and political causes. Our research documents how influencers coordinate with political organizers, as well as among themselves — and across different layers of hierarchy between mega, nano and micro influencers. 

We found that recruiting political influencers works best if the influencers themselves are convinced of the political cause — or candidate — in question. In other words, a political campaign that wants to employ influencers needs to be frank and open about its perspective when seeking out influencers. Crucially, the relationship must also be mutually beneficial — influencers aren’t only compensated financially, they are also often given campaign swag and digital shoutouts from candidates.  

Influencers use tools to increase engagement metrics, like “sharing apps, engagement pods and other platforms to organize and coordinate.” This means that at times popularity is artificially inflated, and a political influencer’s content may look more popular than it is. In such cases, this amounts to what Meta has called coordinated inauthentic behavior. Political payments to influencers often take place off of platforms, however, and coordination of real accounts — particularly the influencer accounts integral to social media firms’ bottom line — is tough to police.  

Disclosure requirements for influencers are important, and the Federal Election Commission is well-advised to continue in its current pursuit of shedding light on political influencers as a form of political advertising. But it must not stop here. Instead, the FEC ought to think long and hard about what other transparency requirements may become necessary, to future-proof its regulation. For instance, what happens when an influencer leverages automation to amplify their partisan messages? Very little stops such power users from using fairly sophisticated bot software to boost their engagement.   

Many influencers are professionals — and they constitute a burgeoning, highly profitable, industry. It is crucial that we develop rules as soon as possible that clarify what they can and cannot do in the political domain. Political constituents who use social media platforms should have a right to know if someone who talks to them about a political position received money to do so.

Martin Riedl, Ph.D. is a postdoctoral researcher with the Propaganda Research Lab at the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement and an incoming assistant professor at the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Samuel Woolley, Ph.D. directs the CME Propaganda Research Lab and is an assistant professor in UT Austin’s School of Journalism and Media. He is the author of the new book Manufacturing Consensus: Propaganda in the Era of Automation and Anonymity.”

Tags Andrew Yang Bernie Sanders Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission Donald Trump election laws Federal Election Commission John Fetterman Kamala Harris Kim Kardashian Mehmet Oz Michael Bloomberg political speech Politics of the United States social media influencers

Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

More Technology News

See All
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video