Advertising on social media platforms takes a variety of forms, and increasingly it is centered on 'influencers'—content creators with large numbers of social media followers. Brands can work directly with influencers who create and post content that appeal to their audience instead of buying ad space from a platform. According to a report on influencer marketing, the influencer industry is growing rapidly and will be worth an estimated $15 billion by 2022, up from $8 billion in 2019. But while content creators on platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok are attracting millions of followers and advertising dollars, platforms are not keeping pace with these trends in how they monitor and regulate advertisements.

TikTok is further behind than most. On TikTok there are different rules depending on whether advertisements are bought through TikTok’s ad platform (including in-feed video, brand takeover, hashtag challenges, branded effects & sounds) or bought as sponsored influencer posts. Our research suggests that ads which are run directly through TikTok’s ad platform are labelled and monitored internally as advertising, whereas paid posts by influencers are not.

For instance, influencer Charli D’Amelio (who has more than 100 million followers on TikTok) was paid as much as $100,000 per TikTok post to promote a new Dunkin’ Donuts drink. TikTok requires influencers like Charli to simply disclose the paid partnership by adding the hashtag #ad, without requiring any additional process or checks from the platform itself. While this is the minimum required to make the post compliant with FTC guidance on advertising disclosures for social media influencers, other major platforms take more responsibility for monitoring this influential advertising by offering influencers straightforward ways to disclose their partnerships.

Instagram requires content creators to disclose paid partnerships by using a tool that they make available to creators. When creators use this tool, Instagram adds a Branded Content tag to the post before it goes live. Posts marked as branded content appear on Instagram with the label “Paid partnership with...” Instagram enforces this policy by automatically flagging posts and stories that appear to be branded but are not disclosed, thereby nudging creators to use these tools to disclose their partnerships.

Similarly, YouTube requires content creators to disclose sponsored videos by checking a box that says “My video contains paid promotion like a product placement, sponsorship, or endorsement” during the upload process. Videos marked as paid promotions automatically show viewers a disclosure message for 20 seconds at the beginning of the video. Of course, it’s hard to know exactly how self-disclosure ad policies are being enforced across platforms, but TikTok is significantly far behind Instagram and YouTube when it comes to providing tools and enacting clear, strict, and transparent policies.

Providing transparency into advertising (including influencer advertising) on social media platforms is critical. Advertising transparency allows people to monitor what kind of entities are paying to influence people on a platform and can be an important first-warning system for detecting when ads are running on the platform that shouldn’t be. Though TikTok has announced Transparency Centers in the U.S. and Europe, these Centers do not provide detailed transparency regarding advertisements, and does not include specific data about how many or which ads were rejected under TikTok’s ban on political advertisements.