I first started writing articles when I was a teenager, as one of the ways I could contribute to the movement to stop the war on Iraq, to free the refugees from detention in Australia and to stop a waste dump being built where I lived (one of the poorest parts of Sydney).
I've been a journalist for 16 years now, writing from Bolivia, Mexico, Venezuela, Pakistan and other countries -- aiming to center the voices of those who aren't usually heard, and covering the other side of the story. But now, as a freelancer in Mexico, like many journalists and writers, I'm forced to do content writing between the journalism in order to pay the bills. As a result, I've learned a lot about how this huge and booming marketing industry works. I'm alarmed by how many people don't realize the supposed blogs they're reading are simply well-concealed marketing, and about the serious social impact of this calculated, dollar-driven invasion of the internet.
Nearly half of millennials (43 percent) have been misled by medical information on the internet. A recent Harris Poll found that people tend to click the first article that comes up in a search, even though such articles are often advertising content aimed at selling medicine or medical devices.
When people aren't searching, they are often coming across such misleading content via social media. Of the 20 most-shared articles about cancer on Facebook last year, over half, according to The Independent, contained claims discredited by doctors and health authorities.
How does this misinformation make its way into widely circulated articles? Often, it is there on purpose: Content marketing -- corporate advertising disguised as articles, videos and information -- is being systematically manufactured on an industrial scale.
The global spend on content marketing is predicted to reach US $313 billion by 2019 -- around double what it was in 2014. Companies are devoting more and more effort to creating advertising that doesn't look like advertising: content that consumers want to interact with, such as blog articles, infographics, reports and studies, moving emotional YouTube videos, social media content and "native advertising" (ads that look like news or opinion content).
Content marketing aims to be useful or entertaining so that consumers invest time reading or interacting with it -- unlike other forms of advertising that can easily be ignored. Companies are also mass producing content for their sites and social media pages, as more pages mean better search engine optimization, more visitors or social media views, and higher brand awareness.
The number of "news" stories has increased by 36 percent each year, Christopher S. Penn, VP of marketing technology with SHIFT Communications, told EContent. He said that in 2016, his company expected 88 million stories to be published. "No matter how amazing we think our content marketing is, customers are drowning in media," he said, referring to the phenomenon as "content shock."
The overall composition of internet information is shifting toward strategically executed corporate drivel: substandard health articles aimed at convincing readers to consume more wine, real estate articles pretending to enable consumers with helpful "tips" to find the house they can't afford and emotionally manipulative Pepsi videos pretending to understand rebellion and social justice struggles.
The proportions of junk food we consume affect our bodies. Similarly, the composition of the information we're fed affects our collective knowledge, our ability to think critically and the focus of our collective attention.
The Quality of Content Marketing
"One's mouth becomes watery when, people around you boast of fried foods. Whether one is male or female, young or old, maximum people have the fondness for the shiny, greasy food," opens one article on Listovative. Though clickbait rather than content marketing, the article showed up at the top of two separate Google searches, showing that with the right strategy, low quality can make it to the top.
Then there's this unsound mortgage advice with bonus grammar mistakes on real estate site Trulia, including oversimplified statements like, "It might be five years before you recoup the initial costs of purchasing a home." Companies like Trulia employ a strategy of mass production of such content in order to attract clicks and readers. Typically, they content farm their "blog articles" from extremely underpaid and often inexperienced writers. Often, this means unqualified people are producing content that provides what is portrayed as serious health, parenting, diet and financial advice. The content pretends to be useful for the reader, but it could in fact be counterproductive, or even dangerous.
WebMD, for example, earned $561.3 million in 2016 from advertising and sponsored content -- 79.6 percent of its total revenue, according to its annual report. Because the site produces good, reliable information, it can be hard to weed out the sponsored content, such as a depression test, sponsored by drug giant Eli Lilly, maker of antidepressant Cymbalta. Now removed from the site, the test gave everyone who took it the result: "You may be at risk for major depression."
As long ago as 2010, a Nottingham University study of health advice on the internet found that none of the sponsored or commercial websites provided correct medical information. A similar study from 2013 found that in searches about sports injuries, nearly half of the top results came from companies trying to sell something. The researchers -- doctors -- had noticed that many of their patients were coming in and, based on what they had read online, would request medical devices that were not appropriate for them.
Another type of content marketing with little integrity is "newsjacking," where companies use trending hashtags to promote themselves. A few of the more infamous examples of this include designer Kenneth Cole taking advantage of the Cairo protests in 2011 and tweeting, "Millions are in uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online.…" The Golf Channel used Martin Luther King Day in the US to tweet, "Tweet your 'golf' dream on the anniversary of MLK's 'I have a dream' speech.…"
Meanwhile, 62 percent of business-to-consumer marketers use infographics as a tool as well, seeing that this didactic format works well as an advertising weapon.
The proliferation of junk content is aided by economic inequality. The internet is not a level playing field, and just like in the real world, those with more money often hog the limelight. Those companies with more money to spend on page creation, advertising, analytics, influencers (people with high social media followings can be paid to promote content) and social media campaigns skip to the front. Social media signals like retweets, shares, retweets by influencers and so on, can drastically affect a site's Google search ranking, and those retweets, likes and shares can be bought through companies like Mechanical Turk or Boostlikes.com.
The Business-Run Newsroom
On the other hand, the newsroom is being taken over directly by corporations, with businesses boycotting traditional channels and creating their own "newsroom" as part of their corporate website. (For instance, Red Bull may encourage you to find out the latest sports news by going to its site.) Meanwhile, traditional newsrooms are using their editorial teams, or setting up special native advertising teams, just to provide disguised content for companies.
Coca Cola's newsroom includes not only articles about the product, but also listicles about topics vaguely connected to the product, such as 16 Things You Didn't Know about Vending Machines in Japan and Around the World, and news sections, such as community, business and innovation. Plus, the site offers ways for consumers to participate -- by submitting photos of their "Coke moments," for example.
Red Bull's Content Pool is focused on the sports and culture events the brand sponsors, as well as a quotes corner, photos of the week and "premium" film and music content. Red Bull TV streams similar content live.
Still, there's an advantage for businesses if content they produce (or pay for) appears to be independently produced or published. This is where news outlets like BuzzFeed come in. In BuzzFeed videos, people try food and products, and their sometimes-critical responses lend credibility and interest value to the marketing, at a time when the newer generations are increasingly skeptical of direct advertising. CJR notes that BuzzFeed employs a team of 65 people to produce work on behalf of corporate clients, while a larger team produces other editorial content.
The world of "native ads" is growing. Fairfax Media launched its native advertising business, Brand Discover, in 2015, and it has since grown from a team of three, to a full-time team of 28, plus more than 3,000 freelancers. In a campaign for the South Australia tourism authority, Fairfax created and published over 200 content elements, including listicles, infographics and itineraries. Time Inc., meanwhile, also launched its native advertising agency, The Foundry, in 2015, and its team of 150 has since served companies like Bank of America, Volvo, Emirates, Merrill Lynch and California Tourism.
Meanwhile, many consumers struggle to tell the difference between journalism and marketing, with nearly half of the respondents for one survey not knowing what native advertising was.
With this mega shift towards news that is more directly produced by (or for) corporations, journalism is changing: Writers and journalists are expected to be able to write advertising copy, and those writing for company "newsrooms" are considered journalists.
More people are working in native advertising teams and as content writers, and the number of actual journalists is decreasing. In the US, the number of journalists in daily newspapers dropped by 39 percent between 2005 and 2015 -- from 54,100 to 32,900. In the UK, the number of journalists dropped from 70,000 in 2013 to 64,000 in 2015, but the number of UK workers describing themselves as public relations professionals jumped from 37,000 in 2013 to 55,000 in 2015.
Many freelance journalists, writers and other creatives are also being forced to turn to content writing to supplement their income. This means journalists are writing more about food, celebrities, tech and companies than about social justice or global issues. On top of this, content writing can be extremely exploitative. Sites like iWriter pay rates of $1.62 for a 300-word article, and $4.05 for a 700-word article. Clients (in my experience) will then often read over the finished piece, keep the text and use it, then rate the writing low in order to not have to pay even that. Other sites like Upwork see freelancers competing to bid the lowest for their labor, while Upwork keeps 20 percent of the wage for itself.
Social Consequences of More Corporate Information and Content
The digital information we have access to is increasingly corporate-made and sponsored. Of course, collaboration between much of the big media and the business world isn't new, but this collaboration is increasingly pretending to be content worth reading -- and since the internet provides infinite space for articles, infographics and video content, we're seeing a deluge of this type of clandestine marketing.
The era of sponsored content portends a vulnerable fate for the next generation of consumers, when it comes to misinformation and manipulation. A 2016 Stanford study of US high school and university students found that their ability to analyze information on the internet was "bleak" and "they are easily duped." In one test, 80 percent of students believed native advertising was a real story. In the example, a picture of a homepage, the native advertising was marked clearly with the words "sponsored content." In another test, 40 percent of students felt that photos on their own -- without context, explanation or coming from a reliable source (in this case, uploaded to Imgur) -- were a reliable source.
Whether the content is low quality and uninformed or part of an expensive, well-resourced and multichannel corporate campaign, spin is spin when it comes from corporations -- and now, that spin is dominating the information quickly available to us on the internet.