The Ugly Side of Pretty: Social Media Influencers, Ethics, and the FTC

Kallmekris. Manny MUA. Jaclyn Hill. Kayla Itsines: if you, like me, are obsessed with Instagram, Youtube, and TikTok, you may be familiar with these names. What do they all have in common? They are some of the biggest non-celebrity social media influencers in the game.

According to this informational website, a social media influencer is someone who has two main traits:

  • They have the power to affect the purchasing decisions of others because of their status, authority, knowledge, or relationship with their audience, and
  • They have a following in a distinct niche, such as fitness, makeup, or comedy

Anyone who is on social media has an influencer or celebrity they follow due to profession, status, or relatability, and it seems today that everyone wants to become an influencer. And who wouldn’t? Influencers can make an average of $5,000 per month through affiliate advertisement links alone.

However, there is a more complicated and potentially darker side to social media influencer fame. In this post I will break down three ethical concerns associated with being a social media influencer, so that people can consider who they like, follow, and re-tweet in the future.

The Authenticity Mask

As stated previously, social media influencers can rise to fame by creating a relationship with their audience, meaning that their personality alone attracts viewers and followers. But are these influencers’ personalities real, or created for their online personas? In the article “Come Join and Let’s Bond: Authenticity and Legitimacy Building on Youtube’s Beauty Community,” author Florencia Garcia-Rapp explored this concept of legitimacy and online presence and discovered that, at least regarding the beauty community, beauty influencers need to fit certain expectations in that community in order to succeed.

Influencers Jenna Marbles, Shane Dawson, and Tana Mongeau have each released apology videos for problematic actions and/or content. Were these videos fake or authentic? Source:

This raises many red flags. First, does this mean that social media influencers hide behind a mask of authenticity in order to achieve success? Or, do we as viewers naturally “weed” out those we deem unacceptable in a given community, therefore acting as gatekeepers? Knowing that some people “fake” being nice to earn a couple bucks online does not sit well for many, myself included.

Are You REALLY You?

While most people seem to worry about the potentially phoney personalities of their favorite influencers, another ethical concern involves if some of these influencers are even real people.

Yes, you read that right: some influencers are quite literally fake.

Lil Miquela. Source:

Social media influencer Lil Miquela, who has 1.6 million Instagram followers and has made appearances in Calvin Klein commercials, modeled with Prada, and given interviews from Coachella, is a computer-generated character, as discussed in this New York Times article. And she’s not the only one; companies like KFC, Coca-Cola, and Louis Vuitton are utilizing these characters because it is much easier to create the persona you are looking for in an advertisement than regulate real, human influencers.

The issues with computer-generated influencers doesn’t necessarily only fall to common concerns of deception, but also with finances. Virtual influencers do not need to disclose if they are being endorsed by certain companies, which has been brought to the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) attention.

Speaking of the FTC…

Full Disclosure

Perhaps one of the biggest ethical concerns with social media influencers, in terms of monetary gain, is the issue of disclosing relationships with brands. Back in 2017, when influencer marketing was quickly emerging, the FTC discovered that nearly 93% of influencers were not properly disclosing their endorsements, as mentioned in this article. This led the FTC to release a “Disclosures 101” manual for social media influencers, and enforcement of these regulations was top priority.

Source: FTC via

However, some influencers have “cracked the code” in terms of getting away with fully sharing their endorsements. Influencers have begun to rely on the concept of “covert content” in which the Mere Exposure Effect takes place. To sum, the more we are exposed to something, the more we like it, and this effect truly works better if the exposure is implicit. This means that if TikTok star Anna X makes videos that consistently have a bottle of Dasani water in the background, she doesn’t necessarily need to say Dasani sponsored her video: her followers will still be more likely to only buy Dasani water.

Sneaky, sneaky, sneaky…

While some influencers may see an issue with the FTC’s regulations, I, as a social media user, see a huge need for this regulation due to rising fraudulent influencers, fake followers and accounts, and problematic content, as detailed in this article from the Library of Congress. Still, as long is money is on the table, influencers may try to sneak in more endorsements.


By posting this article, I hope to not unintentionally make myself appear to be a paranoid, skeptical social media user. That being said, there are clearly some ethical choices and debates occurring with social media influencers. Social media users have the right to stay informed with current issues regarding their social media channels, and this extends to who they follow. Who knows – if you do your research, your favorite influencer may actually be legit. And wouldn’t that be beautiful?

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