Most of us would like to think that we aren’t fooled by fake news.

Maybe your grandmother falls for the headlines she sees on Facebook—“Yoko Ono Reveals Secret Affair With Hillary Clinton,” say, or “10 Ways Vegetables Are Destroying Your Liver”—but you know better. Right?

Perhaps in familiar formats. But, as laid out in an investigative longread out this month from Wired contributor Benjamin Wofford, social media-based misinformation—and the general pushing of ideologies from questionable social media sources—has evolved far past phony articles on Facebook.

Wofford takes a deep dive into Urban Legend, an ad-tech startup founded in 2020 by two former Trump administration staffers that facilitates marketing deals between corporate and politically-motivated clients and small-scale social media influencers.

There’s an increasing lack of trust in our core institutions, in the media, and in each other, Wofford explains, but people seem to maintain a level of confidence in influencers, especially influencers with “micro” followings (fewer than 100,000 followers) whose lifestyles seem both desirable and accessible.

Corporations have discovered that influencers, with their “we’re just like you!” messaging, can often attract consumers more effectively than a traditional advertisement would. The influencer sphere, then, is the new frontier of political lobbying; just as people are more likely to purchase a product flaunted by an influencer, they’re also more prone to buying into an ideology that they see their favorite content creator promoting.

And influencers aren’t just for young people anymore; while some of Urban Legend’s influencers are 20-year-old beauty or fashion mavens, many have content directed toward older audiences: an attorney who posts videos with financial advice, for instance, or a physical therapist who shares exercise routines for the elderly.

“If an influencer’s financial advice helped you save for a vacation or their fashion tips earned you compliments,” Wofford writes, “Maybe their view on the minimum wage, or critical race theory, is worth considering too.”

From the story: 

Like baseball, selling influence is a pastime that rarely gets reinvented. There are only so many ways to get a person to do the thing you want. In politics, the more solicitous methods include robocalls and email spam with increasingly audacious subject lines (“Hey, it’s Barack”). “The most impactful messaging strategies have always been the most personalized,” says Anat Shenker-Osorio, a progressive campaign consultant based in California. Peer-to-peer outreach has long proven the most effective at persuading or mobilizing—appeals that create “the feeling like this is a real person talking to me.” Urban Legend’s approach reflects this insight, embracing influencers less as celebrity spokespeople than as peers for hire. If an influencer’s financial advice helped you save for a vacation or their fashion tips earned you compliments, maybe their view on the minimum wage, or critical race theory, is worth considering too. “To then have that person give you information about politics? That’s potentially an incredibly potent and powerful messenger,” says Shenker-Osorio.

Because Urban Legend’s influencers integrate sponsors’ messaging into their content organically and in their own words—and because the FTC isn’t great at enforcing its requirement for influencers to disclose paid endorsements by inserting #sponsored or #ad into a caption—even the most vigilant users may not realize that a creator is being paid to, say, promote a petition that condemns mask mandates. 

“The ramifications of not disclosing these ties can touch anyone,” Woffard writes, “From your credulous grandmother all the way up to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”

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