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OPPI's Asawari Sathaye decodes what ASCI’s influencer guidelines mean for responsible health communication

Asawari Sathaye, OPPI

In the digital age, social media influencers wield remarkable power in shaping public opinions and trends. This influence, while valuable, must be wielded responsibly, especially when it comes to health-related information. 

Recognising this, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) took a significant step by mandating that influencers must disclose their relevant qualifications, such as a medical degree or be a certified nurse, nutritionist, dietician, physiotherapist, psychologist etc., depending on the specific advice being given. Additionally, all advertisements shared by influencers must be labelled as such. 

This move underscores the importance of accurate health information and is a commendable effort to maintain the integrity of health-related content on social media platforms. 

The ASCI guidelines are also aligned with the statutory guidelines issued by the Central Consumer Protection Authority (CCPA) titled “Guidelines for Prevention of Misleading Advertisements and Endorsements for Misleading Advertisements, 2022” (CCPA Guidelines).

The influence of social media influencers

Influencers have large and dedicated followings that grant them the ability to shape perceptions, behaviours, and trends. People are drawn to their content because they perceive these individuals as possessing expertise, authenticity, and relatability. Consequently, when influencers promote a product or a service, their followers are more inclined to believe their claims.

The responsibility of influencers

With great influence comes great responsibility, and ASCI's directive reflects this understanding, particularly when it concerns health information. While influencers surely have an opportunity to bring about patient awareness for many diseases which are undetected or not diagnosed they also have an ethical and statutory obligation to ensure that the information they provide is accurate, reliable, and aligned with medical best practices. This is particularly crucial given the potential consequences that misguided health advice can have on individuals' physical and mental well-being.

Potential risks when promoting healthcare advice

The potential harms of influencers providing suggestions or promoting medications without proper qualifications and prior knowledge are significant and alarming. Such endorsements can mislead audiences into making uninformed health decisions, risking their well-being and safety. Followers, trusting the influencer's recommendation, might disregard professional medical advice, leading to ineffective or harmful treatments. Furthermore, the unregulated promotion of medications could contribute to the spread of misinformation, fostering a culture of self-diagnosis and inappropriate medication use. 

It is no wonder therefore, that in the context of healthcare products, such endorsements are regulated under strict laws, including, but not limited to, the Drugs and Magic Remedies Act, 1954, the CCPA Guidelines and professional codes that medical and other healthcare practitioners are bound to follow.

Steps Toward Responsible Influencer Content

  • Education and disclosure: Influencers should educate themselves about the issues and products they endorse. Transparently disclosing their medical expertise or lack of it can help followers make more informed decisions.
  • Consulting experts: Before writing or endorsing an issue, influencers should consult medical professionals and seek expert advice. This not only safeguards their followers' well-being but also ensures they are promoting accurate and reliable information.
  • Promoting critical thinking: Encouraging followers to critically evaluate information and consult medical professionals before making health-related decisions can help counteract the blind trust that sometimes accompanies influencer recommendations.
  • Platform responsibility: Social media platforms should implement stricter regulations and have verification processes and fact-checking mechanisms in place that could help prevent the spread of misinformation.

Mitigating misinformation: A comms imperative

In the digital realm, misinformation spreads like wildfire. As comms professionals, we understand that managing perception is vital, and this holds particularly true for health communication. ASCI's initiative aligns with the legal mandates, and principles of effective public relations, promoting influencers as credible sources of information. This not only safeguards the reputation of influencers but also helps to counteract the deluge of unfounded claims that can negatively impact public health.

Today, social media influencers have become powerful agents of change. However, with this power comes the responsibility to use their influence ethically and responsibly, especially when it concerns health-related content. The Advertising Standards Council of India's directive to require medical practitioners and certified experts to disclose their qualifications and label advertisements is a significant stride toward promoting accuracy, transparency, and accountability in health information dissemination. 

By adhering to these guidelines, influencers can contribute to a society that is both healthier and better informed within the acceptable legal framework applicable to this subject matter.

Asawari Sathaye, director of communications and patient advocacy, OPPI

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