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Sunday Reading: The Rise of Idea Influencers

Most of us would like to think that we are not fooled by fake news.

Maybe your grandma falls in love with the headlines she sees on Facebook—”Yoko Ono Reveals Secret Affair With Hillary Clinton,” for example, or “10 Ways Vegetables Are Destroying Your Liver”—but you know better. Right?

Perhaps in familiar formats. But, as noted in a lengthy survey read this month from Wired Contributor Benjamin Wofford, social media-based misinformation — and the general push of ideologies from questionable social media sources — has evolved far beyond fake Facebook posts.

Wofford takes a deep dive into Urban Legend, an ad tech startup founded in 2020 by two former Trump administration staffers that facilitates marketing deals between businesses and politically motivated clients and small-scale social media influencers.

There’s a growing lack of trust in our core institutions, in the media and in each other, says Wofford, but people seem to maintain a level of trust in influencers, especially influencers with “micro” followers ( less than 100,000 subscribers) whose lifestyles seem both desirable and accessible.

Companies have discovered that influencers, with their “we are like you!” messages, can often attract consumers more effectively than traditional advertising. The sphere of influencers is therefore the new frontier of political lobbying; just as people are more likely to buy a product posted by an influencer, they are also more likely to buy into an ideology they see promoted by their favorite content creator.

And influencers aren’t just for young people anymore; While some of Urban Legend’s influencers are 20-something beauty or fashion enthusiasts, many have content aimed at older audiences: a lawyer posting videos with financial advice, for example, or a physical therapist who sharing exercise routines for seniors.

“If an influencer’s financial advice helped you save for a vacation or if their fashion advice got you compliments,” Wofford writes, “Perhaps their take on minimum wage, or the theory criticism of the breed, is also worth considering.”

Of the history:

Like baseball, selling influence is a hobby rarely reinvented. There are only so many ways to get someone to do what you want. In politics, the most solicited methods include robocalls and email spam with increasingly bold subject lines (“Hey, it’s Barack”). “The most impactful messaging strategies have always been the most personalized,” says Anat Shenker-Osorio, a California-based progressive campaign consultant. Peer-to-peer outreach has long proven most effective in persuading or mobilizing – appeals that create “the feeling that I’m a real person talking to me”. Urban Legend’s approach reflects this idea, viewing influencers less as celebrity spokespersons and more as peers to hire. If an influencer’s financial advice has helped you save for a vacation or her fashion advice has earned you compliments, perhaps her take on minimum wage or critical race theory is also worth a look. hardly to be taken into account. “And then have this person give you information about politics?” It’s potentially an incredibly powerful and powerful messenger,” says Shenker-Osorio.

Because Urban Legend influencers incorporate sponsor messaging into their content organically and in their own words — and because the FTC isn’t very good at enforcing its obligation for influencers to disclose paid mentions in inserting #sponsored or #ad into a caption – even the most vigilant users may not realize that a creator is being paid to, say, promote a petition that condemns mask mandates.

“The ramifications of not disclosing these links can affect anyone,” Woffard writes, “From your gullible grandmother to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”

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Follow editor Lena Geller on Twitter or send an e-mail to [email protected]