“StarHub and M1 have accepted a public apology by Singtel group chief executive Chua Sock Koong for a smear campaign that ran last year” (Smear Campaign Sparks Calls For Stricter Ad Rules, Irene Tham).
Telcos StarHub and M1 may have accepted a public apology by Singtel for a smear campaign ran last year, with the Infocomm Development Authority still investigating whether the company “breached the Telecom Competition Code” (ST, Mar. 21), it should also be determined if regulations concerning consumer protection and advertising practices were contravened. Especially if social media agency Gushcloud is cognisant of its legal responsibilities, it should not get away with a manicured apology which provides no guarantee against future transgressions. Marketing standards may now be tightened, yet a good – while unintended – consequence is heightened scepticism of online content producers.
In this vein it is not necessarily true that the “ethical values surrounding blogging or tweeting as a form of marketing are still relatively new as opposed to [mainstream advertisements]”. Instead of these values being “relatively new” (or not), these social media agencies – vis-à-vis the marketing standards for campaigns which Singtel claims it has – figured it was worth the risks to disregard these ethics, thereby dabbling in such disinformation.
It is nonetheless true that traditional journalism offers lessons on the separation between editorial and advertorial. Far too many online publications in Singapore have gotten away with disclaimers tucked discreetly in the middle or the end of articles, undeclared information on whether goods and services were paid for, or a blatant disregard of conflicts in interest. “Rising competition among social media agencies” is a poor explanation for these practices.
At the same time content consumers should learn to be more discerning with articles on the Internet and their corresponding traction. There are dishonest acts – such as fake comments, “likes” on Facebook, or “followers” on Twitter and Instagram – which regulators have no control over, but can be sussed out by the average reader by doing a quick survey of timelines and past interactions. For instance Facebook Pages with many “likes” may have few engagements on their posts, and profiles of fake “followers” are usually empty. This means companies engaged these services should verify numbers such as website traffic or social media charts, to calculate accurate returns on their advertising investment.
The persistence of such poor influence by social media agencies will only continue to erode public trust, at their own expense. Businesses may still be happy with the performance of these influencers, who have amassed followings on their terms, yet in the long run such influence will only wane if these personalities are no longer trusted.
A version of this article was published in The Straits Times.