Influencers are giving out cash for clout and calling it COVID-19 relief

Strange (and shady) alternatives for livelihood in strange times.

Promoting social media. Social Media concept with buying followers and likes. Digital marketing, bus...

At least 26 million Americans have lost their jobs under COVID-19. Despite some offers of tech solutions, millions are reported to be locked out of the unemployment claims system. Naturally, people are getting desperate. Amidst this chaos, some influencers are turning to marketing schemes to offer pandemic relief to their followers, The New York Times reports.

On the surface, it sounds altruistic. Who wouldn't want free money under these circumstances? But a deeper dive by the publication reveals a world of quid pro quo benefits. Shady marketing groups, like Social Acceleration Group (which lets you buy a digital billboard for $400 in Times Square and will mention you in five Google news articles for $300), are offering influencers clout in return for posts detailing cash giveaways. They pay prominent influencers money to "host" a giveaway and, as The New York Times reports, "sell follow list slots to earn a profit."

Under these posts on Instagram shared by the likes of Bhad Bhabie, people tag their friends, throw in praying emojis, and hope for the best: lots of money, a gadget or two, and ultimately some financial relief. In some cases, even doctors are using these marketing schemes to reach broader audiences.

Some legal advice — Despite the questionable nature of this entire transactional social media phenomenon, thousands of people will still continue to participate in these giveaways. It's an unfortunate but natural consequence of the economic precarity induced by COVID-19 and subsequent lockdowns.

If you find yourself slightly intrigued to give it a shot, The New York Times reports that you should seriously reconsider for legal reasons. According to Robert Freund, who advises influencers as part of his work, you might be violating state sweepstakes law if you're involved in these giveaways. The lack of transparency around the matter is particularly problematic.

"There are a lot of state, federal and local laws that regulate the sweepstakes promotional space and there are special considerations when you run promotions online with influencers," Freund told The New York Times. He adds:

Right now there’s a trend where influencers are making it seem like these cash giveaways are out of the goodness of their heart because of Covid. But, if they’re getting compensated, they need to disclose that fact when they promote the giveaway and make posts about it. Disclosure in influencer marketing is an area that the F.T.C. is paying a lot more attention to recently and regulators are watching.

Here's some (authentic) good news — Not everyone is feigning philanthropy to boost their follower count under COVID-19. Some influencers are just trying to be digital samaritans to the best of their abilities — which can be hard to believe these days. As The New York Times reported, some have collected funds among themselves and distributed amounts to their followers for free.

None of this is surprising, though. Such approaches — both the sincere and shady iterations — are bound to take place when the existing economic system lacks a cohesive response to a global pandemic.