An 'influencer' has shared the true motivation behind her bikini-clad photos and Instagram profile after revealing her true identity.
Mia Wilde created her account @thatcoastalgirl six months ago, a snapshot into her wholesome life by the ocean, healthy meals and regular exercise routines.
What appeared to be the account of another upcoming Instagram influencer however was anything but.
With now almost 20,000 followers and brands sponsoring some of her content, Mia Wilde has revealed she is actually SBS journalist Calliste Weitenberg and her Instagram account has all been part of an elaborate scheme to see how easy it is to cash in on the billion-dollar industry.
Weitenberg and her producer Elise Potaka looked to other wellness influencers for inspiration and recreated bikini selfies and fitness posts to build a fake persona and explore the regulations around promoting products on Instagram.
"We wanted to investigate influencer marketing and sponsored content in your Instagram feed," Weitenberg told Yahoo News Australia ahead of a four-part investigation airing on SBS program The Feed.
"Influencers are spruiking anything and everything like vitamins and hair products so we started off trying to find out how this whole thing worked – who is making what and how do you even make money.
"We then looked at this explosion of micro-influencers and this shift in the Instagram advertising space away from big celebrity influencers like Kim Kardashian to people with less than 100,000 followers – people like your sister or personal trainer who are now selling you products."
SBS journalist's fake Instagram persona
Weitenberg needed at least 2000 followers to gain any interest from brands looking to her to sell their product.
With a rising interest in the wellness and lifestyle space, Weitenberg decided to create the character Mia Wilde, who spent time at the beach, ate healthy, often dressed in activewear and posted exercise routines.
"We basically just copied posts that other influencers in the space were doing," she said.
At first she and her producer tried to grow their number of followers organically but after struggling to do so, they discovered a space where rising influencers would swap likes for likes.
"We hit a wall after a couple of months and had maybe 100 or 200 followers ... so we decided to play dirty," she said.
"We bought fake followers, fake likes and joined groups where you make a quid pro quo with other influencers."
To Weitenberg's shock, they got away with it and their account was never shut down despite very little of her following actually being genuine.
The murky world of Instagram exposed
In an attempt to receive free products to spruik in Instagram posts, Weitenberg signed up to an agency that connects influencers to brands.
With one agency claiming to only sign on top-tier influencers and vet any spam accounts to ensure brands get quality ambassadors to sell products, Weitenberg managed to get signed on as Mia Wilde despite the whole profile being completely fake.
She was sent underpants, skinny tea, coconut water, and skin care products.
"Not only did we make it through, we managed to get products from brands," she said.
She was then expected to spruik the product on Instagram, however one company requested she did not disclose certain posts were an ad – completely ignoring guidelines around sponsored content.
Instagram's rules for influencers
When contacted by Yahoo News Australia, Instagram pointed to its guidelines that state influencers must always disclose if they have a partnership with a brand.
"We define branded content as a creator or publisher of content that features or is influenced by a business partner for an exchange of value, such as monetary payment or free gifts," the guidelines state.
"Branded content may only be posted with the use of the branded content tool, and creators must use the branded content tool to tag the featured third party product, brand, or business partner with their prior permission.
"Branded content may only be posted by Facebook Pages, Groups, and profiles and Instagram accounts with access to the branded content tool.
"You must also comply with all applicable laws and regulations, including by ensuring that you provide all necessary disclosures to people using Facebook or Instagram, such as any disclosures needed to indicate the commercial nature of content posted by you."
A Facebook company spokesperson told Yahoo News Australia in a statement it required the use of the 'paid partnership' tag because they wanted to be transparent with people.
"We always want people to know when they are seeing a paid advertisement," the spokesperson said.
"We have strict policies on Instagram which require disclosure tools be used in all instances where posts contain branded or commercial content.
"We are committed to supporting creators and brands in connecting responsibly on our platform, while ensuring a high standard of transparency and integrity for our entire community.”
However, Weitenberg claimed the guidelines were not enforced or regulated and the brand's request to her to not stipulate a post was an ad was a direct violation of Australian consumer law.
"This shows the wild, wild west nature of this space right now which is a massive $15 billion industry," she said.
"A lot of money is being made in the Instagram world with no checks and balances. We wanted to know what would happen if an influencer or brand breaks the rules and we found nothing happens."
Concerns over 'insidious' form of advertising
Weitenberg said successful influencers could make as much as five figures for one post, and claimed there were no regulations around the "insidious" form of advertising.
"We need to be taking this a lot more seriously than we are right now and people are underestimating the power of this advertising," she said.
"The way the regulation works at the moment is it's up to the consumer to report what they see as problematic but it's fundamentally a flawed idea.
"The way influencer advertising works, consumers don't necessarily know it's an ad in the first place.
"Another real problem is how do you vet the claims being made in these posts? There is no regulation of that. If an influencer puts up a vitamin supplement product who is vetting to make sure what they are saying isn't harmful?
"That is what is falling through the gaps every single day."
Weitenberg said more needed to be done than just having self-regulated guidelines rather than laws.
She added there needed to be consequences for brands and the influencer agencies who are behind the sponsored ads and directing influencers on what to post.
"They have the power," she said.
"Sponsored content has become part of our normal experience and something has shifted in the last five years where personal content from mates, your best friend or neighbour feels like an ad.
"It's a scary and dystopian future and we need to step back and see it's not just a vitamin supplement ... it's part of a bigger problem and a bigger beast we need to question.
"When it comes to consumers they need to be aware they can report these posts they see to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission and that is within their power."
The four-part investigation into the world of sponsored content on Instagram will air on SBS program The Feed from March 16 at 10pm.
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