Before the Internet, everyone could distinctly tell the difference between entertainment content and commercials. Whether it be telling the audience, “we’ll be right back after these messages” or “…after a message from our sponsors,” the audience knew what were sponsored ads and what weren’t. But now with seemingly limitless content vying for clicks, likes, and shares, it’s hard to tell what content has been paid for by a company.
Sponsored Native Content
Publications like Teen Vogue, The Washington Post, The New York Times, or Business Insider regularly create sponsored native content as a monetization method. However, the Federal Trade Commission prohibits publications from misrepresenting sponsored content or omitting the fact that it is sponsored. By and large, most publications adhere to these standards and label appropriate content as such.
But when Teen Vogue first released the 2000-word piece titled, “How Facebook Is Helping Ensure the Integrity of the 2020 Election,” in early January, there was no obvious or obscure indication if the post was sponsored. The piece discussed how five female Facebook employees were taking measures against the spread of Fake News. Casting Facebook in a socially innovated light, the interview-based article seemed to boast female empowerment and a pertinent campaign against misinformation.
Teen Vogue’s Facebook Article Transparency or Lack Thereof
Initial responses to the article questioned the nature of the article, which led the article to be taken down and republished with the addition of, “Editor’s note: This is sponsored editorial content” to the top of the piece without explanation why it wasn’t there in the first place. The note was then removed, then, inexplicably, the post was deleted from the website and now visitors are met with the message, “Unfortunately, this page does not exist. Please check your URL or return to the Homepage.”
Both Facebook and Teen Vogue had little explanation to offer the piece. At first, Facebook claimed that the piece was, “purely editorial,” and the official Teen Vogue Twitter account responded to a Tweet questioning the piece with, “literally idk,” which was also deleted.
After more backlash, the Teen Vogue parent company, Condé Nast said in a statement, “We made a series of errors labeling this piece, and we apologize for any confusion this may have caused. We don’t take our audience’s trust for granted, and ultimately decided that the piece should be taken down entirely to avoid further confusion.” Facebook, meanwhile, called the controversy a misunderstanding over the nature of the article.
Preventing History from Repeating
Forgetting or omitting to label sponsored native content might seem like a small oversight. But since the 2016 Presidential election, Facebook has struggled to build its reputation as a trusted information source that vigilantly monitors the spread of misinformation. The New York Times obtained a 2500-word internal post in which Facebook executive Andrew Bosworth warned, “against the temptation to skew the platform against President Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign and stood by the company’s stance on not censoring politicians’ posts.”
The instantaneous access to unlimited content comes with an equal amount of expectations to decipher the real from the mislabeled.