Social media personalities, bloggers, and other influencers have been questioned for their ethics because of fears associated with influencers marketing products without telling their audiences. Joe Sinkwitz has an accessible summary of the concerns around influencers’ lack of disclosure. My research group on influencers within the travel industry sought to explore how these workers understood their ethical obligations to their audiences. Our paper, titled “Ethics of Authenticity: Travel Influencers and the Production of Sponsored Content,” was recently accepted to the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication national conference. Mariah Wellman will be presenting the conference in Washington D.C. this August.

Earlier this year, I led a paper with my research team on the business relationship between destination marketing organizations, influencers, and intermediaries, which will be presented next month at the annual meeting of the International Communication Association. Mariah took lead on our new paper on ethics, and I worked as a second author by helping to organize the literature to support her argument.

Here’s the abstract:

Media coverage of influencer marketing abounds with ethical questions about this emerging industry. Much of this coverage assumes that influencers operate without an ethical framework and, moreover, that many social media personalities skirt around the edges of legal guidelines put forward by regulators (Bogle 2017; Zerbo 2017). One reason it is difficult to discern the ethics of influencer marketing is the lack of a preeminent professional organization for influencers. Our study starts from the premise that influencer marketing is not inherently unethical but, rather, that the ethical principles influencers use to guide the production of sponsored content are not well understood. Despite the lack of a formalized, universal code of ethics for influencers, we argue that there is a general agreement among influencers about what drives their ethical decision-making. Through a case study of the travel and tourism media industry, our findings demonstrate that influencers use the concept of authenticity as an ethical principle when producing sponsored content. An ethics of authenticity puts the influencers’ brand identity and relationship with their audience at the forefront while also allowing them to profit from content designed to benefit brands and destinations.