While scrolling through social media, do you ever find yourself wondering if the person you’re following is even real? You’re not alone.
Meet Milla Sofia. This 24-year-old virtual model from Finland was created by artificial intelligence.
According to her website, Sofia is collaborating with a Finnish online store, showcasing its products in her social media posts.
From virtual models to fashionista robots and animated humans, AI-generated influencers are taking platforms like Instagram, X, Facebook and TikTok by storm, with hundreds of thousands of followers.
“I’ve got this massive knowledge base programmed into me, keeping me in the loop with the latest fashion trends, industry insights, and all the technological advancements,” Sofia is quoted as saying on her website.
“I’m committed to being at the forefront of the fashion world and delivering valuable content to my awesome audience.”
AI influencers are not new, but big brands are increasingly turning to these digital trendsetters to market their products.
In 2018, Miquela was listed in Time magazine’s 25 most influential people on the internet.
Over the years, several famous brands, like Prada, Calvin Klein and BMW, have tapped her to promote their products.
It’s a cost-effective marketing strategy, says Mai Nguyen, director of Insight Lab at Griffith University, Australia.
“AI influencers are already making their mark in the realm of social media, and their popularity is likely to continue growing,” Nguyen said in an email interview with Global News.
“While they may not completely replace human influencers, they provide unique benefits such as cost-effectiveness, language versatility and a lack of personal scandals.”
The AI technology itself generates content and interacts with the audience, but there is a human team behind building the influencer’s brand and managing their social media accounts, Nguyen said.
Companies are willing to give more money to influencers, with the influencer market expected to grow by roughly 30 per cent to an estimated $28.9 billion this year, according to a 2023 benchmark report by Influencer Marketing Hub.
That report also showed that more than 60 per cent of agencies and brands said they plan to use AI or machine learning (ML) this year to identify influencers or “create effective campaigns.”
The technology is able to create “hyper attractive,” blemish-free individuals that would appeal to most social media users, who would then be easier to influence, said Jennifer Mills, a psychologist at York University.
“We may be more likely to be persuaded by people that we see as being attractive,” she said in an interview with Global News.
“Their messages might resonate more for us.”
As the technology gets better with time, part of the appeal for AI influencers has to do with entertainment and curiosity, Mills said.
“I think people are wanting to know just how far the technology can go,” she said.
Will AI influencers become the new norm?
Despite its growing popularity, many social media users are skeptical about AI-generated content.
A recent survey conducted by the Canadian Journalism Foundation (CJF) revealed that 58 per cent of Canadians believe they have personally encountered misleading or false information online and on social media in the past six months that was generated by AI.
“Canadians are beginning to identify and understand the risks of AI-generated misinformation,” CJF board chair Kathy English said in a statement with the survey release.
“With these perilous new threats to the integrity of information, it is imperative that Canadians of all ages comprehend the importance of news and information from credible sources.”
The potential lack of transparency, making it difficult for users to differentiate between AI-generated content and human-generated content, is also a “major concern,” according to Nguyen.
“This can lead to misleading or deceptive marketing practices, potentially eroding trust among social media users,” she said.
Mills, who has been researching and publishing studies on how social media use can affect people’s body image, said it remains to be seen what the potential impact could be of AI on mental health.
However, she said if people see a flood of “perfected images” created by AI on their social media feeds, they may lose their sense of what “real people” actually look like.
“There’s this intensification of content that is so-called perfected…. These images are blemish-free, their hair looks perfect, their body shape is unattainable, impossibly thin,” she said.
“In the long term, what that does is it makes images of imperfect people look weird or out of place.”
Whether AI influencers could become the new norm on social media will depend on user acceptance and addressing transparency and trust issues, Nguyen said.
There is a growing push to regulate AI around the world, including in Canada.
Ottawa introduced privacy legislation last year that includes new rules for the use of artificial intelligence.
The government says the artificial intelligence elements of the bill are aimed at protecting Canadians by ensuring high-impact AI systems are developed and deployed in a way that identifies, assesses and lessens the risks of harm and bias.
The legislation is set to be studied by a House of Commons committee.
Going forward, clear labelling and disclosure mechanisms will be crucial to informing social media users about the presence of AI influencers and AI-generated content, Nguyen said.
She also said a comprehensive regulatory framework should be established that is not limited to individual countries and to enhance accuracy, social media platforms should collaborate with fact-checking organizations.
“As AI technology continues to advance, social media users will need to adapt to this evolving landscape and demand more responsible and ethical practices from both AI and human influencers,” she said.
— with files from The Canadian Press