Skip to Main Content

Evaluating Social Media Information

This guide will provide tips on identifying disinformation on social media platforms.

What is native advertising?

Native advertising, or sponsored content, is a form of advertisement that mimics the styling of the news platform where the ad is hosted. These paid advertisements often blend in with other content by taking the form of an article, video, podcast or editorial. As a result, it can be difficult for readers to identify this content as an advertisement. Sponsoring companies use native advertising for exactly this reason: by seamlessly integrating their content alongside standard editorial content, readers might mistake the advertisement as news, and be more likely to read or trust it. 

Why should I care about native advertising? 

Native advertising is inherently biased; the sponsoring company paid for the advertisement with the hopes to sell you something. They could be trying to sell you a product, an idea, or even the brand itself. For example check out this native advertisement. At first it appears like a beautiful article about the value of birds to the environment. However, if you explore it a little more, you'll realize it is actually an advertisement for a shoe company, Allbirds.

While advertisements aren't inherently bad, they become problematic when we mistake them for reputable news reporting. For example, check out these two articles in the New York Times.

At first glance these articles appear very similar. They are both hosted by the New York Times (NYT), a generally reputable news source, they both provide recent information on  women's experiences in prisons, and they even both cite experts and government statistics within their articles. However, one is editorial content written by an experienced journalist, and then reviewed and fact-checked by the NYT editorial team. The intent of this article is to share accurate reporting on a New Jersey prison. The other article, however, is written by a marketing strategist for Netflix. It is not reviewed or fact-checked by the NYT, and its main intent is encourage interest in the prison system so that you watch the Netflix show Orange is the New Black. Look through both these articles, can you identify which is which?


How do I evaluate a news source to determine if it is sponsored content?

Identifying native advertisements can be difficult, in fact a Stanford University study found that over 80% of middle-school to college aged students could not differentiate between a legitimate news story and a sponsored advertisement. Luckily there are some tips that can make identifying native advertising easier.

To identify a native advertisement follow these steps: 

1.  Look for the following terms along with the article: sponsored by, paid content, in partnership with, content from, promoted stories. These terms often appear in small banners at the top or bottom of the page. On social media, these terms might appear after a hashtag, such as #advertisement or #sponsored

2. Check for an author, and then do some research on who the author is. If the listed author is a company name or brand, this is a good indicator that the article is sponsored content. If the author is a person, do a quick internet search of them. Who do they work for? Do they have a background in marketing? Do they work for the company that the article is about? Both of these could be indicators that the article is sponsored content. If the author is listed as "Staff" explore other parts of the article, are there other clues that this is a native advertisement?

3. Look for links that bring you to a company website, or read the last few sentences of the article. Native advertisements frequently have numerous links that bring you to a company website, and they may even tell you exactly what they want to purchase at the end of the article. For example: 

  • This interactive Apartment Therapy article on spring cleaning, looks like a great guide to cleaning your house, but once you start clicking on links and products, you'll notice that every link brings you to The Home Depot's website.
  • This BuzzFeed article looks like a cute quiz about animals, but the last claim in the article is about how the Wendy's Double Stack is a great deal. 
  • The aforementioned  New York Times article about the value of birds contains several links at the end of the article directing you  to a shoe company: AllBirds. 

4. Native Advertisements can be very emotionally compelling, which may distract you from noticing that they are advertisements. Check out how these advertisements on CNN and the Washington Post use quizzes and touching stories to draw you in to their advertisements.