If Facebook Is Going To Label Satirical Stories, It Should Be Calling Out Ads Posing As News Links

Image courtesy of I'm mostly doing this story so I can repeatedly share my Facebook profile photo of an 18-year-old me with a glorious head of 1993 hair.

I'm mostly doing this story so I can repeatedly share my Facebook profile photo of an 18-year-old me with a glorious head of 1993 hair.

I’m mostly doing this story so I can repeatedly share my Facebook profile photo of an 18-year-old me with a glorious head of 1993 hair.

Facebook began labeling certain shared links as “satire,” as a bit of hand-holding for its less-savvy users who can’t tell the difference between an actual news headline and one written by the writers of The Onion. But what Facebook really needs to do is start labeling so-called “native” or sponsored stories on non-satire sites so that your idiot friends might think twice before sharing a story that is really just an ad for some juice company.

About a year ago, we showed you the many ways — from the blatantly obvious to the insidiously stealthy — that certain popular sites post these bought-and-paid-for “news” items.

But, as we pointed out in that story, once a post gets shared on social media, it doesn’t matter if it’s sponsored or not. It comes through on Facebook, Twitter, etc., as just another post.

And just to make sure that things hadn’t improved in the last year, we checked out some new sponsored stories and went through the embarrassing process of posting them on Facebook to see if their sponsored-ness would be evident.

(NOTE: The point of this particular story isn’t to call out any of the following sites — all of which have their merits — for taking sponsored stories; you have to pay the bills somehow. It’s about finding a way to maintain the transparency of those sponsored stories once they escape into the social media realm.)

The first two stories, one from Buzzfeed (sponsored by Naked Juice), and the other from QZ.com (sponsored by Porsche), gave no indication on Facebook that they were lengthy advertorials:


A Converse-sponsored story on Gizmodo included a “for Converse” byline when published to Facebook, though most people would likely miss that:

Interestingly, when we shared an American Express-sponsored story posted to Skift.com, it came through with [Sponsored] in the Facebook headline, and the short lede included in the Facebook share also called out American Express:

We contacted the editors at Skift, who confirmed that this is something they do on their end before a sponsored post is published, in order to minimize the odds that readers could confuse it with actual Skift editorial content. The [Sponsored] addition to the headline is also automatically added when sharing a post on Twitter.

However, it is worth noting that this only occurs when you publish to social media from the story page on Skift. Copy/pasting the URL causes Facebook to simply bring in the headline as if it were just another news story.

While our search was certainly not exhaustive, the only site we came across today that had a foolproof way of alerting Facebook users to sponsored content was GigaOm, which actually puts the words “Sponsored Post” in the headline, so that even when copy/pasted into Facebook, readers would have to be awfully dull to not notice that this is an ad:

Auto-adding a [Sponsored] tag to these posts obviously poses a logistical issue for Facebook. Tagging all things shared from The Onion as [Satire] is easy, because it’s not like that site vacillates between fake and real news. Meanwhile, the majority of the content on all the sites cited above is not sponsored, so Facebook couldn’t just use a blanket tagging system.

Additionally, Facebook faces the problem of confusing its own users, who might think that a post tagged [Sponsored] is something for which Facebook received money. Facebook has sponsored content that it gets paid for on its own, so there would need to be a way for differentiating between the two.

It would seem like it would be in Facebook’s best interest to flag these shared stories as ads. It’s essentially free advertising. The odds of a Facebook user clicking on one of these stories is much more likely than someone clicking on a blatant Facebook ad, which would seem to incentivize advertisers to create sponsored content that can be placed and shared for free on Facebook rather than pay Facebook for ads that won’t be shared.

We’ve contacted Facebook to see if it has any plans for handling this sort of content. We’ll let you know if we hear back.

Meanwhile, we recently heard about a Firefox and Chrome plugin that claims it can detect native ads and alert users to sponsored content. We have not yet had the chance to try it, so we have no idea if it works, but it’s not a bad idea.

Note from Laura: I’ve been testing the Chrome version and have been very pleased with it. Here’s what you see when you click on the article about fierce chia seeds.


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