Works in Progress - Autumn 2018

News or Not?

When native advertising blends in too well

By Marcus Banks | September 4, 2018
(Jeff Eaton/ Flickr)

Online media literacy—the ability to distinguish accurate from inaccurate information on the Internet—is a highly fraught and complex topic. Preventing the propagation of outright lies may be a broadly agreed-upon goal, but who decides what is true? What seems obvious to someone of one political persuasion will be preposterously false to an ideological opposite, even when both sides marshal credible evidence in support of their claims. More insidious is the invention of “facts” to fit the purposes of partisans of all stripes, as well as the hoax and scam sites that abound on today’s Internet.

Michelle A. Amazeen, an assistant professor in the Department of Mass Communication, Advertising and Public Relations at Boston University, studies how people evaluate online content. She distinguishes between misinformation (when people share false information inadvertently) and disinformation (the creation of completely false information intended to deceive). Amazeen focuses on “native advertising,” a type of online content that lies on the continuum between the innocent and the spurious. A native advertisement looks like any other news article or blog post, blending into a host website and tricking news consumers into believing that they have encountered unbiased content. Unlike with print, there is “no standardization for labeling of online advertising,” Amazeen says. Most people, as a result, do not know how to spot a native ad.

Amazeen and her colleagues are conducting research to determine what makes people likelier to recognize a native ad. Their provisional findings are that younger people are better able to spot such ads, as are the more educated. Amazeen has also begun to identify “dispositional” traits of people who access the news in order to be accurately informed. These individuals, who still subscribe to the idea that the core function of journalism is to report the news without fear or favor, tend to be especially adept at spotting native ads. They are also the likeliest to be upset once they do.

Amazeen says that the advent of native advertising was a response to the challenging business models facing online journalism. She recommends that legitimate news organizations shed native ads, clearly differentiate advertising from content, and boldly proclaim that they stand for accuracy and truth.

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