We have evidence that internet users are less interested in tracking the provenance of a story than consumers of straight print media.
It comes as no surprise to any thoughtful consumer that most media make money by attracting eyeballs for the ads they have strung around their content. In print media this is the role of display advertising. In conventional television the clusters of ads that interrupt program content have the same function. Even so, in the large scale public migration to internet sites many consumers of “new” media seem not to have noticed the close proximity of genuine news to the qualitatively different “sponsored content” nearby. Sometimes these “stories” at the end of a section feature an interesting picture, the promise of a shocking revelation, and always another new set of pages that will pull us in to see even more ads. These “news” items are sometimes labeled “Promoted Stories” or content “From Our Partners.”
On one particular day the popular website The Daily Beast had sponsored articles at the end of real journalistic pieces from a range of self-interested groups. One “article” entitled “Do This Every Time You Turn on Your PC” was really selling “Scanguard,” which is supposed to speed up balky computers. Another “article,” “How to Fix Your Fatigue” was click bait from a food supplement “doctor.” And an ancestry research service was embedded in a third “news story” entitled “What did People Eat in the 1800s?”
Sometimes this clutter of “advertorial” content has no appeal. But we may find it irresistible to take a time-wasting detour baited by headlines like “You won’t believe how the actors in ‘Gilmore Girls’ have changed.” At the risk of giving away my Calvinist/Methodist roots, all this spontaneous grazing pulls us away from more purposeful tasks. As if we needed it, a writing course at the University of Pennsylvania is actually called “Wasting Time on the Internet.”
As things go, advertising masquerading as news probably doesn’t qualify as a crime against humanity. And there can be little question that news sites of all sorts need the revenue stream of advertising that allowed print media to prosper for well over a century. But a problem remains: paid web content is now melded so seamlessly into the mix of stories offered on many sites that we may fail to notice that we have passed from the hands of editors and journalists into a strategic marketing world dominated by advertisers and copywriters.
In greater numbers Americans don’t consider the self-serving nature of much online content.
This doesn’t pose a serious problem to a savvy reader. But we have more evidence that internet users are less interested in tracking the provenance of a story than consumers of straight print media. In greater numbers Americans don’t consider the self-serving nature of online content, even when solid expertise and neutrality should weigh heavily on what we “know,” especially if we are researching subjects as consequential as health information. This lack of critical insight makes Americans a bit less intelligent, turning us into better consumers than citizens..
Add in another factor that makes the problem of accepting low-credibility sources even more unsettling. Traditionally our memory for content outlasts our memory for where it came from. This so-called “sleeper effect” means there is a time in our cognitive life when we are more likely to remember a stray fact or assertion than the source that it came from. You know the effect if you have ever heard yourself say “I don’t remember where I saw it, but I do remember seeing . . .” It’s at this point that the paid flacking of click bait creates the greatest opportunity for cognitive mischief. It’s content outlasts what should be reasonable suspicions about its fictions and limitations.