Digital influence: regulation to create efficency
Influence primarily aims to change opinions, convictions and habits – it is a gradual, rather than brutal, phenomenon. Influencing also means trying to gain control of a narrative or agenda, rather than being subjected to it. With the increasing number of people speaking out on social media and the global predominance of pure-play media, the importance of online influence has led legislators to intervene in an attempt to regulate its use.
In France, digital influence is now regulated – some would say limited – by the June 9, 2023, Law “for a more secure use of social media”. It enforces a certain number of constraints on influencers who urge their communities to purchase products and services. This law represents a step forward in user protection, as the abuses are far from being isolated cases: “nearly one influencer content out of five does not meet the transparency criteria“, according to a June 2023 study of the French advertising regulator (Autorité de Régulation de la Publicité). The investigation against Magali Berdah’s influencer agency, Shauna Events, for “organized fraud” is a high-profile example.
On the European scale, a new regulation on digital services, the “Digital Service Act” (DSA), will come into effect in February 2024: it makes content platforms accountable for online hate, harassment, manipulation and disinformation. According to European Commissioner Thierry Breton, the priority is “that what’s forbidden in the physical world must also be forbidden in digital life“.
From encouraging consumption to influencing political opinions
There is another, more worrying side to digital influence. For example, the conflict that has been tearing Ukraine apart since February 2022 has shed light on the media, journalists and opinion formers defending Russian interests under the guise of plurality of information. RT and Sputnik, already described as “organs of influence and misleading propaganda” by Emmanuel Macron in 2017, were suspended after a vote of the EU Council on March 2, 2022. This measure, targeting partisan media – omnipresent on social media – reflects the existence of extreme cases. They have a perfectly controlled and considerable influence, which aims to play a role in the outcome of the conflict by turning Western public opinion against their governments’ support for Ukraine.
More recently, European Commissioner Thierry Breton warned Elon Musk (owner of X (formerly Twitter) against illegal content linked to the Israel-Hamas war. In accordance with the Digital Service Act, the EU – through the voice of Mr. Breton- threatened to sanction the platform for overlooking its content moderation obligations. The stakes are high, since the aim is to protect European users from potentially violent or even traumatizing content, which various players are disseminating as part of a propaganda strategy based on shock and fear.
Fair influence is possible
Online influence cannot be reduced to deceptive commercial practices or political propaganda operations. It is also a way for a brand, a company or a community to exist. The goal is different: to create trust, establish dialogue and remove any doubt that might hinder or damage their reputation. To achieve this, one needs to use all the levers of influence: managing social media accounts, developing websites, publishing studies, opinion pieces and white papers to promote an organization’s work and positions. All this while respecting fundamental rules of transparency, complying with applicable laws and, more generally, cultivating user trust.
To stand out from the crowd in a context of standardized communication practices, organizations have every interest in developing their “thought leadership”, i.e. their ability to appear, often through the voice of their manager(s), as an expert or opinion leader in their sector, and therefore be identified as such. Today, it is one of the first levers that needs to be activated for a successful communication strategy. Furthermore, one must combine having a constant media presence, both online and in traditional media, taking a stand on current issues and monitoring impact.
Influence cannot prescind transparency. This is the task set out by the Observatoire de l’Influence Responsable (Responsible Influence Observatory), which publishes an annual report on the matter. By complying with legislation, and even anticipating legislative action, online influence must cultivate the virtues that condition its credibility and long-term effectiveness: clarity (of purpose), respect (of users) and seriousness (of statements).