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With increased scrutiny, does MY need national guidelines for its influencers?

With increased scrutiny, does MY need national guidelines for its influencers?

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Influencers in Malaysia are facing increased scrutiny with government bodies pressing in on the need for them to be mindful of what they say, and legal action being taken against some for posts.

In fact, last week, Malaysian influencer Ryzal Ibrahim was reportedly fined RM10,000 by the Sessions Court in Miri, Sarawak for disrespecting a traditional Iban garment. The 31-year-old is known for producing online content with his Korean wife Maryam You Na-rae under the Instagram username Duriankimchi.

Ibrahim was found guilty of insulting the costume called 'Ngepan Indu' on his Instagram account when his wife wore the garment three years ago by likening its beaded collar to a tablecloth and TV mat from the 1970s. While his wife replied that the pieces were handmade, Ibrahim also compared the skirt of the Ngepan Indu to unwashed rags.

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As a result of his words that offended the Iban community, he was charged under Section 223(1)(a)(ii) of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (Act 588), according to New Straits Times.

Ibrahim's sentencing comes shortly after communications minister Fahmi Fadzil reportedly reminded influencers to take extra care when they handle podcasts or upload content on social media to prevent negative effects on the community. He also said that the government will carry out periodic monitoring and study actions that may be taken against influencers who upload non-constructive content.

Fahmi also warned against abusing the freedom of speech in Malaysia by making unfounded allegations or statements that can threaten a country’s democracy. Through the creation of various content on social media such as TikTok, those with opposing views are free to state their opinion, minister Fahmi said.

These new regulations and comments are certainly cause for concern especially as 67% of marketers say that they are planning to increase their investments in influencer marketing this year according to a report by Partipost. Out of the marketers who are increasing their investment in influencer marketing, 23% have dedicated nearly half of their total budget to it. 

This surge is likely due to the evolving consumer landscape where today's consumers crave authenticity, a personalised touch and narratives that resonate with their personal experiences and aspirations. 

With the popularity of influencer marketing as a strategy and increasing scrutiny locally, it brings up the question of whether a national guideline is needed for influencers in Malaysia to protect both brands and their ambassadors, something that industry experts MARKETING-INTERACTIVE spoke to are divided on. 

Understanding diverse perspectives

For starters, considering the diverse perspectives and content that each creator brings to the table, it will be difficult to have a rigid general rule for all of them, according to content creator and founder of Aspect Ratio Studios Jin Lim, also known as Jinnyboy in a conversation with MARKETING-INTERACTIVE. 

“I’m not sure if there should be a guideline because every single creator is so different from each other with regards to the content they post,” he said. He added that most creators and influencers are not professionals but self-made individuals who may not be aware of what to do and what not to do.

As these individuals can rise to fame overnight without expecting their platform to garner so much attention, it will be difficult to expect all influencers to be well versed with nitty gritty regulations that they may need an experienced influencer agency to explain.

True enough, in 2024, Partipost predicts that nano-influencers - people with followers ranging from 200 to 5,000 - will continue to emerge as a powerful force in influencer marketing. Despite their smaller followings, they boast high engagement rates and a strong sense of community and trust with their audience.

This authenticity makes them effective in word-of-mouth marketing and in influencing purchase decisions within their tight-knit communities, added Partipost. 

As a result, while no national guidelines might be necessary, Lim is of the view that guidelines should still be discussed with influencers. both new and seasoned, to prevent brand safety issues. 

“When working with brands, influencers must understand the guidelines of what can be done and what should not be done to not go against the brands’ image and positioning,” said Lim. “This is to protect both the brand and the influencers as well.”

He added that when you command a large number of eyeballs, one must remember to be also responsible to not spread hate or misinformation or jump on sensitive trends so as to garner views. "With great power comes great responsibility,” Lim said. 

A reduction of authenticity?

Saying that, the draw of influencers is typically their authenticity and creativity that is unique to their own personal style. As such, it might be a futile attempt to stifle the creativity of influencers who will continue to find innovative ways to circumvent guidelines, according to Foong Yuh Wen, the founder of influencer marketing company SushiVid.

“While it's tempting to believe that guidelines could address the issue, I'm skeptical about their effectiveness,” she said. “History has shown that when social media platforms ban certain content, users find creative ways to express themselves, as seen with the watermelon icon replacing the Palestinian flag.”

However, as controversial content is the bread and butter of the attention economy influencers may sometimes push themselves to extremes for content as was seen recently when Indian influencer, model and actress Poonam Pandey made headlines for faking her death for a campaign. The fake death was part of a campaign raising awareness on cervical cancer by agency Schbang.

The news of her fake death was first announced on 2 February 2024 with a statement being released on her Instagram story stating that Pandey had passed due to cervical cancer. A day later, on 3 February, it was revealed that her death was a stunt to raise awareness on cervical cancer and the screenings available to prevent it.

The stunt gathered mass attention from many internet users, most of which have negatively impacted Pandey's brand sentiments. Majority of the negative sentiments arise from words such as 'saddened', 'grief' and 'shocking', according to media intelligence firm CARMA at the time.

These words were expressed by social media users after hearing about the supposed passing of Pandey. Her sentiments were also at approximately 64.5% negative after her fake death was revealed. Many users questioned the credibility of the campaign and expressed skepticism towards such awareness initiatives in the future, said CARMA.

As such, instead of enforcing national guidelines, Foong explained that it would be more productive to engage with controversial content openly and redirect the narrative to foster meaningful conversations.

“This could include regular panel sessions and ongoing communication to provide influencers with accurate information and guidance,” she said. “While this approach requires effort, it fosters a more collaborative and sustainable environment as compared to the quick fix of guidelines.”

Providing an alternative point of view, Kausern Hieu, CEO of Nuffnang Malaysia, countered Foong's point by saying that perhaps, not having constraints on the creative process could also lead to complacency setting in. In fact, Hieu believes that guidelines will empower creativity and innovation instead of limit it.

“When there are no constraints on the creative process, complacency will set in. Creators and influencers will follow the path-of-least-resistance and will jump on the bandwagon of what is easy and what is trending,” he said.

“Constraints, in contrast, provide focus and a creative challenge that should motivate creators to dig deeper into their creativity reserves to generate novel ideas for content,” he added.

What more can be done?

Moving forward, rather than national guidelines, the emphasis should be on creating an influencer economy in Malaysia that feels encouraged to create and is aware of the platform they have, according to Rengeeta Rendava, founder and managing director of Mad Hat Asia.

“Rather than overarching national government-imposed restrictions, a more fruitful approach lies in investing efforts towards enhancing education and emphasis on responsible content development, backed by research and references,” said Rendava.

Rendava also added that fostering intentional creation, whether that be through addressing consumer topics (e.g. branded content), or issues of national interests, makes for a proactive stance that encourages content creativity.

This means that the focus shifts from limiting what can be created and empowering creators to navigate their influence constructively and conscientiously, added Rendava.

Related articles:
Study: 82% in SEA make purchasing decisions based on influencers and celebritiesFaking deaths and kidnapping stunts: Are influencers pushing marketing gimmicks too far?
Freedom of speech not to be abused, says minister Fahmi Fadzil

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