Can influencers and authenticity ever be compatible?

Easier said than done.
Easier said than done.
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At a recent conference for social media influencers in Texas, a pink neon sign blared, “Let Authenticity Lead the Way.” That word, “authenticity,” appeared countless times, even at a yoga session where the instructor urged attendees to “find your authenticity” while in certain poses.

Authenticity is what influencers are supposed to lend the brands they promote on Instagram and other platforms. Marketers value their content as more honest and grounded than traditional advertising. But this central tenet of the influencer economy is also the fulcrum of most of its problems.

Influencers say their sponsored posts are authentic because they genuinely like and use the products they promote. But those posts are also intentionally meant to blend in with their organic content. For consumers, this can raise questions. When am I being advertised to? Is this ad copy, or someone’s real opinion?

Governments are trying to mandate this authenticity and regulate the sector, but it’s been slow going. The amount of content is massive, and the legal lines are vague. But the stakes are high—think, for example, of a random influencer promoting a pharmaceutical product and not disclosing all the health risks.

Influencers, because they are tasked with upholding and projecting their authenticity, get bashed when they transgress against it. They can get into trouble when they buy fake followers, hawk sketchy products, or fail to disclose that they’ve been paid to promote something. But also, finding that “inner authenticity” from the yoga class is quite fraught. When is it OK to show vulnerability, or to share a dark moment, in the name of presenting their true selves?

Part of the problem is that the supposed authenticity is projected and produced through social media platforms, which themselves are constructed upon filters, upon the idea of curation—upon a certain inauthenticity.

Some say that the credit that influencers once got for their authenticity is running out. In a report for research firm Forrester, marketing analysts say they expect that, as with other forms of advertising, people will eventually “ascribe no more trust to influencers’ branded content than to brands themselves.”

When authenticity becomes a commodity, how authentic can it be?

This essay first appeared in the weekend edition of the Quartz Daily Brief newsletter and draws upon an in-depth series about influencers available to Quartz members.