A slimming sheath promoted by a million-follower blue-ticked profile with the promise of losing weight was the first thing that caused Audrey to raise her eyebrows while scrolling her Instagram feed. That was back in 2019, she told Motherboard, and since then, she has been on a mission to expose the products and practices advertised by French influencers that she has found to be suspicious.
Every day, through her page Vos Stars en Réalité (Your Stars in Reality), she shares with her 150,000 followers the shady cosmetics, counterfeit products, dubious medical procedures and even alleged cancer treatments that she finds on some influencers’ Instagram stories and posts. “These people (are) clearly advertising everything and anything to millions of followers,” Audrey, who asked to use her first name to protect herself from harassment, told Motherboard. “And often in misleading ways.”
Audrey was an early figure to raise alarm about what she describes as “torrents” of adverts shared on social media, with varying degrees of transparency, by online celebrities counting hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of followers—and with very little oversight.
That’s about to change. Over the past year, Audrey has been working with the French Parliament to draft a new bill, officially intended to “fight against the scamming and abuse perpetrated by influencers on social media.” Alongside fellow advocates for consumer rights as well as representatives of influencers themselves, she says she was regularly consulted in private and public parliamentary hearings. Last month, she traveled to the French capital to watch, in person, deputies unanimously adopt the bill, paving the way for it to become the law.
The bill, pitched by the government as the first of its kind in Europe, creates a framework that will regulate influencers’ content when it comes to advertising. It starts by establishing a new legal status for what it describes as “commercial influencers”, defined as people leveraging their online popularity to push content that promotes goods, services, or a cause in exchange for any kind of benefit. Where this is the case, influencers’ activities will be considered advertising and fall under the rules of French Consumer Law. In other words, their content will be subjected to the same constraints as traditional media.
In practice, this means that influencers will have to clearly identify which content is actually advertising. The promotion of plastic surgery, counterfeit products and financial products and services will be banned, while filtered and photoshopped products will have to be labeled as such. The advertising of gambling will still be permitted, but it will have to come with an informational banner about the risks involved. Failure to comply could lead to up to a €300,000 ($327,000) fine and up to two years of jail—in addition to a ban on any future “commercial influencing”.
Social media platforms will also be required to enable users to easily report illegal content. The bill creates a special policing unit responsible for reacting to users’ complaints when the new rules are not followed.
For Audrey, the law is a significant step forward to fight what she sees as a huge risk to public health. Her latest pet peeve? An anti-cancer treatment promoted by Luxembourg influencer Dylan Thiry in a TikTok story, in which he explains that the product will “kill” any cancerous cell in the body. “It’s not sold in France or in Europe,” Thiry assures his audience in the video, “It’s much more interesting for them if you go to the hospital and pay a lot of money.”
It’s not only about dubious medical products, but also practices. It is not uncommon to stumble upon Instagram Stories venting the merits of injectable fillers, such as this now-deleted video in which French influencer Julia Paredes shares her best tips for lip fillers with her one million followers. With the advertising of plastic surgery banned by French law, this sails close to the wind—even in the unregulated world of influencers.
The French National Union of Plastic Surgeons (SNCPRE) recently raised concerns that poorly-researched promotions by influencers are directly contributing to the growth of “fake injectors'' across the country. Presenting themselves as experts, these injectors illegally carry out dermal filler procedures without the required qualifications, often in sordid conditions and sometimes with irreversible consequences.
“Paid partnerships (between influencers) and illegal injectors must be severely punished because they are a danger to public health,” wrote Dr Adel Louafi, the President of the SNCPRE, in an email to Motherboard. “They endanger, in particular, the youngest and the most vulnerable.”
In the past few years, French regulators have been paying closer attention to these risks. In preparation for the law on influencer regulation, a national consultation was launched this year to find out more on unscrupulous influencer practices. At the same time, a report was published by the French consumer watchdog after it assessed the online activity of around 60 influencers over a year. It found that six out of 10 did not align with the law when it came to advertising practices and consumer rights.
This coincided with the much-publicized filing of two lawsuits by an organization supporting the “victims of influencers”, dubbed Collectif AVI. The lawsuits, brought forward collectively by 88 “victims,” primarily concern the activities of influencer couple Marc and Nadé Blata. The first complaint accuses the couple of inciting their millions of followers to invest in NFT platform Animoon, which has since been described as a rug pull, while the second lawsuit focuses on the Blatas’ heavily advertised copy trading platform. According to those who filed the complaints, followers were encouraged to invest an initial fee of €500 ($545) in the platform, which offered to imitate the transactions performed by professional traders to generate gains – gains, of course, that are yet to materialize.
Going by his Twitter name, Légendaire, who is part of Collectif AVI, explained to Motherboard: “On his profile, every day, every night, (Blata) would constantly show off the benefits of copy trading”. As he watched the influencer post pictures of his beautiful villa, big cars and lavish Dubai lifestyle, Légendaire started dreaming. Could copy trading give him the same?
“One day, just like everyone else, I decided to try it. It seemed so easy that I felt I couldn’t miss this opportunity,” he said.
The initial fee was lost. Légendaire was told he must have done something wrong and was encouraged to invest another €500 ($545). He lost almost €2000 ($2,180) before realizing that he was not going to see a financial return anytime soon—and he considers himself lucky. Some of the members of Collectif AVI, he says, lost up to €20,000 ($21,800). “You are manipulated into giving more money,” said Légendaire. “They really get in your head.”
The Blata couple are fighting their case and filed a lawsuit in February denouncing false allegations against them. But regardless of the outcome, the case is increasing awareness of questionable financial practices within the world of influencers. For Légendaire, a can of worms has been opened. Case in point: after Collectif AVI filed their complaints, Instagram’s parent company Meta shut down the accounts of Marc and Nadé Blata, citing a ban on “fraudulent content designed to abuse users.” The company also closed the account of French influencer Laurent Correia, who is at the center of a number of similar controversies including the promotion of copy trading and NFT investment schemes.
Since the first days of the collective, therefore, members have realized that the problem goes beyond Marc and Nadé Blata. “The world of influence can be very corrupt,” explained Légendaire. “And many of them continue to scam with impunity. They think they are untouchable.”
For Collectif AVI, the recent law proposal on the regulation of influencers is therefore a significant win, creating accountability in a space that is currently a gray zone.
The response from some influencers, however, was less enthusiastic. Throughout the drafting of the bill, Union des Métiers de l’Influence (UMICC), a union formed only a few months ago to bring together actors and representatives of those working in the field of “influence”, raised concerns that lawmakers with limited knowledge of the sector might put all influencers and content creators in the same basket. They worry this could lead to some rules, initially designed to stop scammers, unintentionally penalizing those working with stronger ethics and standards.
Although UMICC has now expressed its support for the current bill, the organization’s president Carine Fernandez explained to Motherboard that this required a few discussions with lawmakers. For example, she said, earlier drafts of the text wanted to ban all paid partnerships in relation to health—a rule that risked unfairly putting some content creators out of work. She pointed to French influencer Major Mouvement, a qualified physiotherapist who speaks to about 1.5 million followers on Instagram and YouTube to share useful tips on physical exercises, stretches, pains, and more.
“This is light-years away from scams or the promotion of illegal injections in dark bedrooms,” Fernandez told Motherboard. “Yet the bill in its previous form could have banned him from doing his job. This is why lawmakers must be more aware of the reality of the sector and the reality of content creation.”
According to Fernandez, those concerns were heard. “In its current form, the text has been reworked to take our input on board, so there is less risk,” she said.
But some gaps remain. For Christoph Schoman, international policy director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the current text still reflects a misunderstanding of online influence. Specifically, it fails to acknowledge that online communication is nuanced—and can’t always clearly be labeled as “commercial” or “not commercial.”
What happens, then, when content that has some form of commercial intention overlaps with, say, a political message?
“I find it striking that the bill makes no reference to this,” Schoman told Motherboard. “There is not even a reference in the enforcement regime to the need to ensure that freedom of expression is not undermined. It feels like this part of the discussion has not really taken place.”
These issues are likely to arise when the law starts being implemented in practice. For Schoman, enforcement should follow strict proportionality and necessity criteria, to ensure that operations are carried out only against the most harmful events.
As with every piece of legislation intended to keep a check on social media content, the line between user protection and censorship is a fine one. Even though it seems to have garnered widespread support, anti-censorship advocates like Schoman say the law’s real-world impact should still be carefully monitored—and the expectation should be that some things will go wrong.
The bill is now making its way through Parliament and should be adopted by the summer. For influencers and followers alike, all eyes will be on the last stages of drafting, debating and amending.