Who's influencing the influencers? Better pay close attention, UConn nutritionist says
There are influencers on social media who freely give advice on what and how to eat. But Marlene Schwartz, director of the University of Connecticut's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Health, says there’s one thing these influencers are less likely to freely give up: information on who's paying them to produce their content.
“The food industry, of course, pays for regular commercials and ads, which we can all recognize pretty easily,” Schwartz said. “But then they also do things like paying social media influencers to talk to their audiences about their products. And, the people watching won't necessarily know that that message is paid for.”
Even licensed professionals produce sponsored content
An example of this was what happened after the World Health Organization called the artificial sweetener aspartame "possibly carcinogenic,” Schwartz says.
“Following that,” Schwartz said, “it seemed like there was a very coordinated effort among places like the American Beverage Association — which of course, is the industry group for Coke and Pepsi that have products like diet soda that have aspartame — to have their social media dietitian influencers talk to their audiences, saying that they didn't really believe the World Health Organization and they thought that these products were fine.”
These registered dieticians posted content online trying to reassure people saying these products are fine, as if they were acting independently, Schwartz said.
“To then find out that they're being paid by the companies is a real concern,” she said.
‘Dig deeper’ to find sponsorship disclosures
Influencers are legally required to make it known if they are getting paid for an online video, but Schwartz said they often bury that information in a long series of hashtags.
“Sometimes the clues are very subtle, such as '#dot, #ad, or #sponsored,'” Schwartz said. "And that's in there along with all the other hashtags. And so you have to sometimes ask, 'is this being paid for?’ 'Who is sponsoring this post?' And then you may get the answer there.”
“I think it would be helpful for people to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism when they see someone on social media promoting branded products or promoting something that doesn't quite sound right, like 'let your children have as much sugar as they want!'" Schwartz said. "So there's some kind of common sense that's required and digging deeper to see if the individual who's speaking is being funded.”