Gone are the simple days when we fought off armies of clunky and clearly fake bots trying to sway our votes. Now we face sophisticated and organic-seeming campaigns driven by people with an even more keen understanding of how to manipulate the flow of information. Check your feed: Partisan, paid nanoinfluencers may be your friends or people you follow.
This new culture of the partisan influencer, unsurprisingly coming to fruition in the US during the 2020 presidential election, underscores the challenges social media firms face in dealing with the sheer amount of propaganda flowing on their platforms. Concerns about how the actions of these users—and those who pay and organize them—might affect both public health and public opinion are all the more heightened as Instagram rolls out its TikTok competitor, Instagram Reels. Partisan influencers have told our research team that they’re eyeing this new space because it appears to have a more laissez-faire approach to content restriction than TikTok.
Over the past year, we’ve been studying the ways in which social media influencers are being leveraged by political actors across the political spectrum. Quantifying their scale and engagement rates on Instagram is difficult, for several reasons: (1) There’s lax enforcement of influencers noting when they post advertisements. (2) The “paid partnership” disclosure is itself opaque—clicking the label takes one to the company’s or campaign’s page, but doesn’t show other posts from the same campaign. And (3) the Instagram ad library is frustratingly glitchy and difficult to navigate, and, more concerningly, it doesn’t include sponsored posts from influencers unless the platforms were paid to “promote” the content artificially beyond the influencers' followers—which is rare, since influencers already have audiences.
Our interviews with political strategists, regulators, and leaders of influencer-centric marketing firms have been more enlightening. They’ve revealed, in particular, the growing use of nanoinfluencers in online US political conversation. One interviewee, who manages such campaigns, summed up the political marketing industry's perspective on this shift to nanoinfluencer-based political messaging: “We’re obsessed.” The sentiment is bipartisan.
A few strategists that we spoke to were more reserved, however, admitting that they are still working out the “efficiency” of orchestrating nanoinfluencers for large-scale effect. This is, in part, due to the manpower required to assemble large numbers of nanoinfluencers, which are not commonly on the advertising platforms used to coordinate influencers. The political mobilization of nanoinfluencers teeters between authentic grassroots organizing and manipulative exploitation of intimate (or seemingly intimate) relationships. With this in mind, there are serious ethical quandaries when it comes to political campaigns and other groups leveraging nanoinfluencers during elections. How are influencers being recruited and coordinated? Are the influencers transparent about being paid by political organizations? Are they abiding by campaign finance regulations as well as laws related to electioneering and similar activities?
The use of nanoinfluencers, in US politics at least, is still in its infancy. Those hoping to prevent the spread of potentially harmful propaganda and political disinformation have the rare opportunity to mitigate a nascent manipulation technique. Let us act, rather than resign ourselves to postmortem laments about what could have been done.
What Are Nanoinfluencers?
The relatively small fan bases of nanoinfluencers—accounts with fewer than 5,000 followers—are largely why they’re so powerful as a political tool. These small-scale influencers are composed of everyday people who are active on a community level: the baker, the PTA member, the local religious leader, the small business owner, etc. Unlike celebrity influencers, they can offer political campaigns “friend to friend” outreach. This strategy is further bolstered by political marketers’ ability to automate outreach and micro-target highly engaged audiences for a relatively cheap price. Nanoinfluencers have significantly higher engagement with their followers than other influencers, often taking time to interact with every comment and query on their posts. This enables them to build close relationships and garner high degrees of trust. Unlike celebrities, nanoinfluencers’ followers commonly share specific traits, such as location, age, or a niche interest: a tailored audience. When using advanced technologies such as CRMs, marketing analytics tools, and social listening software, in conjunction with nanoinfluencers, marketers gain the ability to coordinate flocks of “digital door knockers” on a scale that traditional canvassing could never hope to achieve, all while infiltrating close relational networks that would otherwise be off-limits.
Political marketers told us they believe that other social media users—and, most importantly, other voters—see nanoinfluencers as more trustworthy than a given celebrity account because, well, they usually know the person. “To me, it doesn’t matter how many followers they have, it’s about how many people would find them credible,” said one political strategist when describing what they looked for when recruiting potential influencers for political social-media campaigns.
Partisan nanoinfluencers are on the rise just as we’re spending more time on social media due to Covid-19. Instagram users alone are spending a reported 30 more minutes a day on the app. Twitter banned the paid promotion of political advertisements, and Google limited audience-targeting capabilities for political ads (although there are loopholes), so political marketers are looking to influencers as an unconstrained alternative. Finally, the protests following the death of George Floyd have shifted the norms around political discourse on Instagram and other platforms. Political organizations and special interest groups, including campaigns, have taken note, however, and are working to co-opt organic democratic conversations by inserting posts from paid proponents.
According to the experts we’ve spoken with, these shifts have caused an uptick in demand for political influencer marketing among partisan groups and political campaigns alike. Traditional campaigning strategies, like voter outreach and informational events, have moved online. There’s also been a shift in the expectations of influencers, particularly on Instagram: “It’s become a place where influencers are expected to say something, and they are expected to be on the right side of history if they want to continue to operate their businesses,” said one influencer firm executive. Their firm and others have seized upon this expectation and have converted the use of paid nanoinfluencers—well documented in selling commercial products—to sell politics.
What Makes Nanoinfluencers Uniquely Concerning?
Beyond potential cost for the influencers and campaigns themselves, there are broader concerns for digital transparency, accountability, and informational quality. Nanoinfluencers can be used to skirt the advertising policies surrounding political messaging on platforms. Although Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have imposed stricter requirements for political ads, influencer ads float in the quagmire of murky guidelines and lax enforcement concerning the behavior of “regular” people involved in political speech. Should statements made by influencers on behalf of politicians be labeled as “ads”? We think so, but social-media-platform regulations are less clear.
Lack of disclosure is a threat to election integrity and, potentially, national security. Dark money from anonymous corporations, interest groups, and foreign actors continues to fund online operations seeking to influence public opinion without the public’s knowledge. Foreign interference in the 2020 election, particularly from Russia, China, and Iran, is a top concern of US intelligence agencies—how will they deal with nanoinfluencers? Russia, for instance, has been pivoting from using fake accounts to influence voters to using real, local people in regions like Africa, and are likely to attempt the same techniques in the United States. Given that Russian influence operations in the US have prioritized Instagram over other platforms in recent years, it seems likely that influencers, particularly nanoinfluencers, could be leveraged by foreign actors.
To further complicate matters, the Federal Elections Commission—which could change the rules surrounding the use of digital political influencers (and digital political communication in general) during elections in order to hold campaigns more accountable—once again finds itself powerless to act without a quorum. The commission has also suffered from increased polarization in recent years, resulting in commissioners voting along partisan lines when it comes to disclosures. This has left rules surrounding online political ads at a standstill since 2006, with no updates to account for changes in the way the Internet has evolved in the last two decades, especially with regard to social media. Current rules are “technology-neutral and platform-agnostic,” leaving much of the interpretation and enforcement of social media advertising policies to the campaigns and platforms themselves, with little to no consequences for bad actors. One former commissioner told us, “In the last year, there hasn’t been a quorum, and so they couldn’t do anything anyway. And so people know they can just act with impunity, and there’s never going to be any enforcement.”
Until there is adequate regulation of payment disclosure on paid political speech, public opinion will continue to be swayed by puppeteers manipulating small-scale nanoinfluencers.
The authors would like to gratefully acknowledge the Beneficial Technology Team at the Omidyar Network for supporting their research. The views herein, however, do not necessarily reflect those of the funder.
WIRED Opinion publishes articles by outside contributors representing a wide range of viewpoints. Read more opinions here, and see our submission guidelines here. Submit an op-ed at email@example.com.