Have you ever clicked on a news article only to realize that it’s an advert in disguise? If so, you’re not alone. Native advertising is on the rise, and it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference between reliable facts and subtle advertisements.

As I was researching my previous article on the importance of clarifying your company’s online message, I came across an interesting bit of misinformation that cropped up time and time again. Apparently, the human brain is capable of processing information from images 60,000 faster than text. This statistic appeared in multiple articles that ranked highly in Google searches, and even showed up on a popular psychology website.

The frequency with which it was repeated gave the impression that it was widely accepted as fact.

Unfortunately for anyone hoping to use this information for marketing purposes, there’s no real evidence to back it up. An interesting blog post by digital learning expert Darren Kuropatwa suggests that it was originally quoted sans source by a writer called Lynell Burmark, yet despite his intensive digging he was unable to trace it back to any solid research.

While well-researched articles by dedicated fact sleuths are wonderful weapons in the fight against misinformation, there are sixty thousand Burmarks for every Kuropatwa.

Telling fact from falsehood

This reminded me of one of my favorite literary metaphors, which has been attributed to everyone from Mark Twain to Winston Churchill. I first came across it in Terry Pratchett’s delightfully-observed take on the world of publishing; The Truth;

“A lie can run round the world before the truth has got its boots on.”

This idea is just as relevant today as it was in previous centuries; people have been falling for viral misinformation for as long as we can remember, from Herschel’s lunar man-bats to the Loch Ness Monster.

Just last month, a completely fictitious tweet sent thousands of Japanese Pokemon Go fans on a fruitless goose chase to add Mewtwo to their Pokedexes. To their great disappointment they discovered that, just like the archetypal Macavity, Mewtwo wasn’t there.

At least Blastoise made an appearance.

How often are we misled by adverts disguised as news?

Authoritative sounding statistics on fancy looking websites can be highly misleading, as anyone with an ounce of common sense will tell you, yet lies still run too fast for the truth to catch them up. A combination of poor fact checking, unethical online publishing and reader gullibility fuels the absorption and repetition of a wide array of complete and utter lies. The increasing subtlety of native advertisements and their ability to sneak badly researched or manipulated data into our brains is the subject of much academic research and debate. The findings of recent studies into this area are not reassuring; according to Edward Wasserman, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism;

‘Native advertising,’ in short, is all about deception. You, as the reader, are encouraged to perceive the messages as something other than what they are. And even if, at some level, you understand they weren’t put together by the magazine’s staff, you’re still expected to see them as partaking of the magazine’s trustworthiness, and as deserving something of the same regard.

South Park weighs in with their own satirical take on bogus news stories in Season 19’s ‘Sponsored Content’

As anyone who has researched an article or unwittingly shared a Facebook hoax will tell you, trustworthy information is hard to find. This makes it all the more necessary to check your facts and ensure that your own truths are clear.