Clickbait and Native Advertising: the Issue of Monetizing Information

I have recently begun to get pretty frustrated with Facebook. 

What a ridiculous sentence to write, but I'll explain: whenever I find myself with down time, or really just whenever, I'll scroll through my newsfeed just to see what's there. While I am guilty of doing this far too often, I know that I'm not alone in the spending ridiculous time mindlessly scrolling through whatever app. I do the same thing with Instagram. 

What I have found happening so. often. is that there will be some kind of article posted that is either sponsored content (which I'll get into later) or something that a Facebook friend has liked, commented on, or shared that shows up with an enticing tag line that leaves you dying to click on the link to see just "what you wouldn't believe comes next" or what "she said changed her life forever." These types of posts are annoying for multiple reasons, but chief among them is that often, they are ultimately misleading.

Gone are the days when in order to gain revenue from their websites or blogs, the ad on the side of the page served it's purpose of generating income for the website host. Do people still click on those ads? Sure. But it turns out they do so less than one percent of the time. Enter in the "predictive" ads (I don't know if that's what they're actually called, but we're going with it). These are, if you recall, what sent people into an uproar upon their arrival to Facebook. When I google the next time a band is going to be in my town, or look for a new pair of Birkenstocks online (because basic as it makes me sound: I just love them, so, so much), the next time I log on to Facebook, and probably other social media, there at the side of my page is an ad for that band, or, what do you know!? The exact Birkenstocks in the very color I was browsing online yesterday.

It's creepy, right?

But here's the problem: websites, like any other content producers, need income, and since charging people for services that they provide is just the most ludicrous idea (as proven by everyone's refusal to do so), sites, like any business, need to find a way to monetize. Ads are the way to do that. 

Now, let's discuss clickbait. Does it seem harmless to trick some people into clicking on the link to your website so that you have more viewers, and thus, gain more revenue? Sure. 

Except that it isn't. Because for the clickbait to be a link to a BuzzFeed quiz about if they can guess if you have tattoos, sure. Fine. Whatever. But if the clickbait is a link to their quiz about "Which A Capella Persona Are You Actually?" because Facebook knows that you googled movie times for Pitch Perfect 2, and it turns out that harmless quiz is sponsored by Covergirl (which, in Buzzfeed's defense, they make pretty clear on the page--after you've clicked on it, of course.) I feel like that's more of a problem. But this is just BuzzFeed, I can hear you saying. It's not like it's the New York Times or something.

Oh, but it is. 

This type of sponsoring is called Native Advertising, and there are people much more intelligent than me talking about the implications (I'll share one of those in a moment). But it poses a serious problem about journalism--and ultimately, about how we perceive the information being presented to us. 

If I am looking for news about something, I would rather read it from somewhere like The New York Times online than from BuzzFeed--because The Times' reputation precedes them, right? They're not gaining revenue from clickbait-y, banal, lists about which character from Inside Out am I most like. And I appreciate that. I feel like I can trust them because it's their job to present to me vetted, unbiased, newsworthy information. And it always has been. Like, for instance, the fact that female inmates in prison aren't receiving the services they need. So, I click on the article to read it. Because it's The Times, I can expect that it's going to be well-researched, well-written, and informative. 

And it is. 

The article is really well done. But look at the top of the page:

Right. This well-written, well-researched, informative article about the inequality of care given to women inmates is sponsored by Netflix's Orange is the New Black.

And suddenly, I'm questioning the reporting. I'm wondering if it really is an issue, or if it was just convenient content because Netflix told them to make a story for the new season. Now, I'm an unwilling participant in your site's revenue raising. But what can be done?

Below, John Oliver, on his show Last Week Tonight discussed Native Advertising much better than I could. The clip is about 11 minutes long, and some parts are crass, my apologies, but I encourage you to watch it.

Do I pay for access to the New York Times online? Nope. I totally comprehend the issue they (and many, many others) are facing in attempting to stay afloat now that the medium has changed, and people expect to pay nothing but get the best of everything. It just makes me worried. 

When all information is accessed as easily as all other information, and what once was reputable reporting is using the same tactics as the detestable clickbate-y sites, which is exploitative and misleading, and can lead to doing so much harm in the name of monetizing, I worry. 

The issue for me, ultimately, comes down to monetizing information. I think it's a dangerous precedent to set, and in my opinion, only leads to allowing those with misinformation or ulterior, biased motives, having a validated platform from which to spew.