Chiara Ferragni and Italy's Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni in front of red background

Alexandros Michailidis/Shutterstock greatjob/Shutterstock Chiara Ferragni/YouTube (Licensed) Remix by Caterina Cox

How a vocal Instagram critic of Italy’s prime minister’s fake Christmas cake charity drive led to a nationwide crackdown on influencers

Could a panettone promotion explain a new law?

 

Gabriele Di Donfrancesco

Tech

Posted on Jan 12, 2024   Updated on Jan 13, 2024, 11:43 pm CST

Italian influencers will soon have the same legal responsibility as publishers, as the Italian Regulatory Authority of Telecommunications (AGCOM) announced new guidelines on Wednesday extending the legal definition of “producers of audio-visual content” to include social network users with over 1,000,000 followers.

The new guidelines come as Italy’s biggest influencer and one of Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s most vocal critics, Chiara Ferragni, is under investigation for fraud over a holiday cake charity scheme gone wrong.

The new guidelines directly target influencers of the caliber of Ferragni, leaving some to wonder that, although the regulations have been in the works, the timing is retribution for speaking out against Meloni.

Current European laws treat influencers engaging in influencer-marketing tactics as sellers or traders and not media entities. But AGCOM is extending the liability, equating their work to that of TV, marketing agencies, and publishers, and extending it for all types of content, not just advertisements, increasing the stakes and risks for influencers when publishing posts, stores, and videos 

Among the new rules, influencers must clearly label branded content and advertisements, with fines of up to a quarter-million euros. Breaking child protection norms will bring penalties of over a half-million. 

With the ruling, influencer content, even when non-commercial, must comply with anti-discrimination norms and respect a wide range of recommendations that today apply to other creators of audio-visual products, such as avoiding fake news, hate speech, and the promotion of alcohol abuse.

If in the past only the platforms were policing the behavior of influencers, with dubious effects, now the state will take on a new role as an even more critical regulator. 

The news from AGCOM comes after Italy’s top Instagram influencer, Chiara Ferragni, a 36-year-old influencer from Milan with nearly 30 million followers, was placed under investigation this month for a fraudulent charity scheme linked to the selling of a Christmas cake from a famous Italian brand, Balocco.

In December, the antitrust authority fined Ferragni over a million euros, and Balocco nearly a half-million, for misleading consumers into believing that a percentage of the profits of the cake, which cost three times its usual price, would go to buying medical equipment for a Turin hospital.

On the contrary, Balocco had already agreed to pay the hospital a fixed €50,000 sum before the start of the campaign. After the fine, Ferragni donated €1,000,000 more to the Turin hospital in an effort to calm criticism.

A crying video of excuses released last month did not help Ferragni, as brands withdrew their sponsorships, including a scrapped Coca-Cola spot poised to air during Italy’s most followed music festival, Sanremo, in February.

The new Italian guidelines target influencers of the caliber of Ferragni. They apply to users with at least one million followers, operating on a vast array of platforms, and who have a minimum 2% engagement rate on content.

The AGCOM hasn’t unveiled the complete extent of the guidelines but much leaked to newspapers. According to La Repubblica, influencers will also have to publish at least 24 pieces of content per year to be on the radar of the regulatory authority.

The president of AGCOM, Giacomo Lasorella, told La Repubblica that they did not issue the guidelines on the emotional surge of the Ferragni case.

But suspicion still arose, given the hostilities between the Ferragni family and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni.

Over the years, Ferragni and, in particular, her husband, the rapper Fedez, voiced vitriolic criticism on Instagram and national television against Meloni, her far-right party Brothers of Italy, and the immigration policies of her allies.

Meloni, in turn, often referred to Ferragnez—as the couple is nicknamed—with anger in her public speeches, even after being elected prime minister.

Last year, Fedez struck out an embarrassing blow against the government on the state-run television. 

Rapping freestyle during Sanremo, he attacked various figures in the Meloni cabinet, including pro-life Minister of Equal Opportunities Eugenia Roccella and the Vice-Minister of Infrastructure Galeazzo Bignami, who once was photographed dressing up like Hitler.

In December, at the beginning of the Ferragni scandal, Meloni mentioned Chiara during her party’s convention, taking advantage of the situation to push her nationalistic narrative.

“The real role models are not the influencers that make tons of money … sponsoring expensive panettoni by fooling people into believing that it is for charity … the real role models are the people that invent and produce those Italian artisan excellences,” Meloni shouted from the convention stage.

Though she commented on the Ferragni case, Meloni avoided responding to the Jan. 7 neo-fascist celebrations of Acca Larentia, which saw hundreds of people in black shirts making the Roman salute in the streets of Italy’s capital undisturbed.

The country’s opposition has stressed how wrong it is for a Prime Minister to pursue petty vengeance against private citizens while ignoring rising fascist sentiment in the nation.

AGCOM’s president Lasorella explained that the rules will only apply to influencers addressing the Italian public in Italian. They will curtail, among other things, hidden and subliminal advertising.

The threshold of 1,000,000 followers is necessary as AGCOM lacks the resources to scrutinize the tens of thousands of smaller influencers operating in Italy, Lasorella said.

After publishing the guidelines, the authority vowed to discuss them with influencers and marketing agencies, creating a code of conduct for influencers and potentially making changes based on their feedback.

With the ruling, influencers must respect the existing requirements on commercial communications, child protection, human rights, and sports promotion. Influencers will have to adapt or remove inadequate content upon request of the regulatory authority.

The decision of the Italian regulator is part of a European-wide effort to make what is illegal offline illegal online, as stated in the EU Digital Service Act.

“For the first time, influencers will be part of a defined legal category in Italy, the audio-visual world, and they will have to respect all the rules that already apply to that audio-visual sector,” Maria Pia Rossignaud, a journalist in the digital experts’ pool of the Representation of the European Commission in Italy, said to the Daily Dot.

The AGCOM guidelines have been applauded as an effort toward reducing the competition against legacy media, as other sectors in Italy are over-regulated compared to social media.

“In Italy, journalists undergo a tough selection and must comply with a code of ethics. They now operate on the same platforms of influencers and [social media marketers], and these actors don’t have to comply with anything,” Americo Bazzoffia, a consultant teaching marketing and communications at the Mercatorum University in Rome, told the Daily Dot.

In Italy, journalists have to pass an exam to be part of the National Press Association (ODG) and be legally allowed to work in a similar way to lawyers.

In recent years, there has been a push to expand the ODG’s range to include online communicators, but the proposal never made it through.

So while Italy’s new crackdown may wind up being beneficial, the timing and motives of it remain suspect.

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*First Published: Jan 12, 2024, 9:55 am CST