Be Internet Smart

September 6, 2019
Sam Wineburg
AD SPOTTING Many websites contain advertisements. Some online ads are easy to identify, but others are disguised as news stories.
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Picture this: You’re searching the Internet and come across a website. It has interesting articles. Some are news stories. They share information. Others only look like news stories. They are actually advertisements, or ads. The goal of an ad is to get you to buy something. How do you tell the difference between a news story and an ad?

Back when I was growing up, it was easier. We got most of our information from newspapers. Big news stories appeared on the front page. Ads were boxed off and clearly labeled. But on the Internet, the two are often presented together. It can be hard to tell which is which.

The research group I direct did a study. (MediaWise is a partnership between the Stanford History Education Group, the Poynter Institute, and the Local Media Association. We are funded by Google, and we address digital literacy issues.) We showed kids like you the home page of a popular digital magazine. We asked them to tell us what was a news story and what was an ad.

Most were great at spotting certain types of ads. “It has a coupon code, a big company logo, and the words limited time offer,” one student wrote about an ad on the site. So where did kids get stumped?

Some ads seem identical to news stories. They have headlines and present information. But they may also include the words sponsored content. Sponsored means “paid for.” Content refers to the information in the story. “Sponsored content” is a way of saying that something is an ad. Most kids, even if they used the Internet often, didn’t know this.

As a reader, you have a right to know who’s behind the information you consume. So look for the phrase sponsored content. (And look carefully. Sometimes, it’s written in tiny letters.) The Internet is a vast sea of information. We must avoid the sharks. Learning to spot ads is an important step to becoming Internet-smart.

Sam Wineburg is a professor at Stanford University, in California.