How Facebook and the New York Times corporatised 'fake news'

We often talk about far-right US publishers or Macedonia’s fake news industry plaguing our media landscape. But there’s another fraud that too often goes unseen: ‘black ops advertising’.

Mara Einstein
12 April 2017
Facebook's advertising expert Andrew Bosworth, 2017. Christian Charisius/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Facebook's advertising expert Andrew Bosworth, 2017. Christian Charisius/DPA/PA Images. All rights reserved.There’s been a lot of talk about fake news lately. The truth is that fake news isn’t new.

What is new is the extent to which fake news has overtaken the media landscape and the forms that this misinformation takes. News pieces from far-right ideologues like Alex Jones’ Infowars or Breitbart or Fox News constitute one type of propaganda. Another propagator of deception are Macedonians pumping out stories through politically named websites, more to generate personal income than to push a particular agenda. But the third – and perhaps surprising source – are the mainstream marketers.

In the last few years, a new marketing trend – what I call “Black Ops Advertising” – has overtaken the digital landscape. Black ops, or covert, advertising is commercial content that has been obscured so as to appear to be editorial content. These hidden sales messages primarily take two forms: native advertising and content marketing.

Native advertising is any type of sponsored content that has been created to be indigenous to the site within which it appears. You are likely most aware of this in the form of the ads that appear within your newsfeed on Facebook or Twitter. These in-feed native ads look like anything else that a friend or family member might send to you, but with some limited indicators that there is an advertiser attached – such as “sponsored” or “promoted” in faded gray type. An increasingly popular form of this is ‘custom native’: advertising produced by the publisher for the marketer.

Meanwhile, content marketing is information or entertainment created by an advertiser that has no sales message attached. For example, a website called Van Winkle’s presents stories about the science, health, and cultural aspects of sleep and is produced by a mattress and bedding company called Casper. Consumers are unlikely to know this because the company’s name is not readily evident on the site. In truth, though, that hardly matters. Whether native advertising or content marketing, these sales messages are most likely to be viewed through social media. So rather than the advertiser promoting the product or service, your friend or family member has ‘shared’ the content with you, thereby providing an implied endorsement.

While industry people I interviewed said that readers, notably young, digitally savvy millennials, were aware of the ads, I was leery. An increasing number of academic studies now refute those industry claims. Wojdynski and Evans (2015) found that 17% of readers did not recognize native ads, and more recent research confirms their findings (Amazeen and Muddiman, Digital Journalism, 2017). The Stanford History Education Group (2016) found that 82% of middle schoolers – a cohort particularly versed in digital media – could not differentiate ads from news.

Why so confused? First, there is no uniformity in labeling. Some sites say ‘promoted’, some say ‘sponsored’, some say ‘partner content’. How is anyone supposed to decipher that? Second, in terms of ‘custom native’, the ads are typically produced by either former journalists or the editorial staff itself. Across the world, 68% of publishers say that their editorial staff are now producing the commercial content. And who better to make the commercial content look like the editorial that surrounds it, if the point is to utterly disguise commercial bias? If you take a look at listicles on BuzzFeed or ‘articles’ on the New York Times website, replete with headlines and bylines, one thing is clear: the cues through which we understand that something is advertising are fast disappearing.

Regulation is severely lacking. 37% of advertisers were not in compliance in a recent study of over 12,000 online advertising campaigns. One advertiser successfully sued by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) was the department store Lord & Taylor, who used ‘online influencers’ to promote a new line of clothing without requiring that the fashion bloggers promote the fact that they were being paid. Influencers who do not disclose their connections to advertisers have become a rampant form of deceptive promotion.

Notably, Kim Kardashian was targeted by the FTC for exactly these misleading practices. The FTC’s remedy is to insert the ‘#ad’ hashtag into posts on social media platforms like Instagram. But this is too obscure, and an unlikely deterrent for her followers, many of whom are young girls like those studied by the Stanford researchers.

Social media and its concomitant big data drive this marketing format. Social media is designed to get us to share, particularly those things that generate strong emotions. The technology itself fuels the sharing because it is designed for us to spend increasing amounts of time with it. Between 2015 and 2016, Americans spent one hour more a day with media and that increase was driven by time spent on mobile devices.

What makes this particularly insidious are the growing number of marketing and data companies that manipulate the content we see. Social Chain, for example, uses their own feeds and those of ‘associates’ to drive what is trending on Twitter. Cambridge Analytica, the company touted as the powerhouse behind the success of the Trump campaign, uses information from Facebook such as our ‘likes’ to create psychographic profiles that can be used to target readers with highly specific commercial content. And what they have done for politics is also done for advertisers.

It is the economic structure of our media environment, reliant on advertising dollars, that has allowed this situation to arise. The teenagers in Macedonia would not have had any interest in setting up a fake news industry if they could not make a substantial living from it. Facebook could have shut them down, but they had no incentive to do so. And on Twitter, the current US president continues to post, even while he violates their terms of use almost every time.

The tacit agreement between publishers and their audiences has been that media outlets would provide content, as long as we agreed to watch the advertising. The problem is that we have become so good at avoiding advertising. And so the marketers have had to come up with new ways to get their sales message in front of us, without letting us recognise the advertising. First it was DVRs, and now increasingly ad blockers have enabled us to avoid huge swathes of commercial messages. Traditionally, the way to compensate for that was to be as in-your-face as possible: huge golden arches, oversized swooshes, and so on. Today, the tactic is to make the advertising so obscured that we won’t quickly click to the next page. Unless something is done by regulators and consumers, these ads will become even more covert, as they are increasingly viewed on mobile devices and through video formats.

If ads will no longer support content, then the money has to come from somewhere. It will come out of the pocket of consumers in the form of subscriptions for apps and access to websites. And what about people who cannot afford to pay? Publishers won’t want them and advertisers are not interested in them. We will not just have a digital divide; we will have an information divide.

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