Once upon a time, remunerative endorsement was an option available exclusively to celebrities. Social media has changed that. Today, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook overflow with endorsements of brands and products by "influencers" who wield tremendous advertising reach by virtue of the number of followers they have amassed on social media platforms. Their approval seems distinct from that of film stars or athletes because they are seen by their followers as regular folks, "one of us". This implicit bond of trust is what makes social media influencers so valuable to businesses and the business of social media influencing so susceptible to abuse. An ethical breach occurs every time an "influencer" who has been paid to promote something plugs it on social media without disclosing the underlying transaction.
Some influencers are paid thousands of dollars for endorsements. Others accept invitations to lavish junkets. Yet how many influencers are open about the commercial motivations for backing a brand? In a relationship between influencer and follower that has flourished on faith, the latter – the consumer – is at risk when the former is not transparent. A survey last year by the Dubai PR agency BPG Cohn & Wolfe found that 71 per cent of all residents between the ages of 18 and 40 were willing to take advice from influencers before making a purchase. But most influencers in the UAE, as The National reported in 2017, do not reveal to their followers that they are being paid for their posts.
Social media influencing has grown into a lucrative profession ungoverned by laws. The decision by the UAE to regulate it by requiring influencers who earn money through endorsements to obtain licences from June onwards introduces much-needed accountability. Social media influencers will belong in the same category as magazines and newspapers that raise revenue from advertising. Regulations haven't stifled the creativity of traditional publications; there is no reason to believe they will hinder individuals. The new regulations in fact recognise the rapidly altering media landscape, create an environment for healthy competition, afford legal protections to businesses using influencer content and expand consumer protections.