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Photo Editing and Virtual Influencing – What’s Next?

Recent studies show that while only 25% of people believe ads, 90% still trust recommendations from friends and family and 70% trust consumer reviews. And 49% of consumers depend on influencer recommendations to make a purchase. 

TL;DR: The influencer economy is stronger than ever. (In fact, we noted this trend in our 2021 Social Wrapped report.) And nothing could make this more apparent than the recent conversation about Virtual Influencers (or VIs) and the ethical considerations they inspire as synthetic media becomes more popular around the world. 

Transatlantic Regulation

This really is a global issue. Last year the UK introduced legislation that would require influencers to disclose any editing that has been done to modify their appearance in the images that they share in paid promotions. And Norway recently passed a law that did just that. 

The argument for these pieces of legislation is around the proven harmful effects that social media can have on body image perception (especially for young girls) and to scuttle other false or unclear representation. 

While there is broad support for these provisions, the details of how it will be executed remains unclear. How does it affect a photo of a sunset that has been cropped, filtered and retouched? Or the use of tools in smartphones nowadays such as the Magic Eraser on a Google Pixel.

Would (and for that matter, should) every edit have to be disclosed? What would the disclosure look like and how would that affect how a photo shows in the algorithm? Is it yet another ding for an influencer who knows #ad already affects their engagement rate? Would #ad + #altered obliterate the likes, comments and shares?

From Filters to Virtual Influencers

The questions these new rules inspire don’t stop at filters and hashtags. There is also news afoot that Meta is planning an “ethical framework” for the use of Virtual Influencers — digital avatars and AI that at first glance look and act like real people. 

Beyond concerns about how to accurately tag and monitor these accounts (of which Meta counts over 200 across their platforms), there are broader ethical considerations that need to be examined as VIs and synthetic media become more common. 

Issues around deepfakes (like the popular Tom Cruise impersonator Deep Tom Cruise), cultural appropriation, expressive liberty, and the ever-present body image perception remain to be addressed by major tech companies, regulatory bodies, and brands themselves. 

While advocates for VIs and synthetic media laud the potential upsides of such technology (imagine marketing without the limitations of time and location, imagine a celebrity making an appearance at your local BBQ joint, imagine personalized messages from your favorite TikTok star!) we remain cautiously vigilant for the consumer reaction. 

Will people gobble up these too-good-to-be-true (but frankly, mesmerizing) figures in social feeds, or will they shrug them off, ultimately seeing through the guise and developing a deeper appreciation for the real expertise, patience and skill that humans exhibit every day.

Because advocacy and social connection are at the heart of what we do everyday, we’ll be keeping a close eye on developments in this space. One thing is sure, the value authentic influencers can bring to a brand continues to skyrocket, and we’re along for the ride. 

This post was written in collaboration with Tom Hall and Alex Petro.