Here’s how your Paid News could blow up in your face

Don't be surprised if Sponsored Content is regulated by government or Google

Sponsored Content, also known as Paid News, is a practice in which media outlets receive compensation for publishing articles that promote a particular product or service. This practice has been criticised for its unethical nature, as it can deceive readers into believing that the articles are authentic news reports.

Earlier, the Indian government has taken steps on social media to ensure transparency and prevent surfers from being misled by paid promotions disguised as reality.

Issues with disclosures

Issues may be identified with the clarity of disclosures through Disclaimers and mentions of terminology. Different terminologies and media-specific neologisms such as Sponsored Posts, Brand Posts, Branded Content, Business Spotlight, Impact Feature, Brand Sutra, Valued Initiative, Brand Stories, Specials, Brand Focus, Brand Media, Brand Connect, Premium Post, Brand Wire, Inspiration Hub, Brand Initiative are often used for labelling, causing confusion.

The identification of sponsors and the provision of disclosures through Disclaimers are more challenging when content is shared through social media. To address these concerns, the news media industry requires more precise and detailed guidelines, along with proactive self-regulation.

Crackdown on Native Advertising

In 2021, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) directed influencers on Instagram to clearly mark all promotional content as advertising. This was seen as a crackdown on native advertising, a form of Sponsored Content where the advertisement is designed to look like a part of the website’s content.

New guidelines for disclosure of Sponsored Content

In 2023, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food & Public Distribution released a new set of guidelines for celebrities, influencers and virtual influencers using social media platforms. The guidelines aim to ensure that individuals do not deceive their followers when endorsing products or services and that they comply with the Consumer Protection Act and related regulations.

The guidelines, titled “Endorsement Know-Hows!”, require that endorsements be expressed in clear and uncomplicated language. It is acceptable to use terms such as “advertisement,” “sponsored,” “collaboration,” or “paid promotion” in the endorsement. In addition, individuals may not endorse any product or service they have not personally used or researched.

The department has observed that there is confusion regarding which disclosure word to use for what kind of partnership. Therefore, for paid or barter brand endorsements, the following disclosures may be used: “advertisement,” “ad,” “sponsored,” “collaboration” or “partnership.” However, the term must be identified as a hashtag or headline text.

According to the guidelines, people or groups who possess the capability to sway their audiences’ opinions or buying decisions towards a product, service, brand, or experience due to their authority, expertise, status, or connection with their followers, are required to make a disclosure. The guidelines further specify that the disclosure must be included in the endorsement message and must be presented in a conspicuous and unambiguous manner that is difficult to overlook.

Sponsored Content and Paid News articles could be regulated soon

The guidelines have had a significant impact on influencers in India, who have started marking sponsored content as “Advertisement” and providing disclosures. However, this move is currently for influencers, but if in future more clarity is sought in the case of Sponsored Content in the form of news articles, it could be a whole new story.

In recent years, sponsored content or paid news has become a growing concern. With the rise of digital media and the increasing reliance on revenue from online advertising, many journalists and news editors have been tempted to blur the lines between editorial content and advertisements in order to attract more advertisers and generate more revenue for their news websites.

However, this practice has been widely criticised as unethical and has eroded the credibility of the media industry in India. New rules can make it much more difficult for publishers to engage in such practices without risking serious consequences.

While the impact of these new rules in the future can be speculated, it is clear that they could represent an important step towards creating a more responsible and accountable media industry in India.

There is a dire need for more transparency to the practice of Sponsored Content in order to prevent readers from being misled by Paid News.

Google knows

But to put things in better perspective, this is not something that is new. In fact, a decade ago in 2013, Richard Gingras, Google’s Sr. Director, News & Social Products, wrote the following on his Google News Blog:

“Credibility and trust are longstanding journalistic values, and ones which we all regard as crucial attributes of a great news site. It’s difficult to be trusted when one is being paid by the subject of an article, or selling or monetizing links within an article. Google News is not a marketing service, and we consider articles that employ these types of promotional tactics to be in violation of our quality guidelines.”

“Please remember that like Google search, Google News takes action against sites that violate our quality guidelines. Engagement in deceptive or promotional tactics such as those described above may result in the removal of articles, or even the entire publication, from Google News.”

“If a site mixes news content with affiliate, promotional, advertorial, or marketing materials (for your company or another party), we strongly recommend that you separate non-news content on a different host or directory, block it from being crawled with robots.txt, or create a Google News Sitemap for your news articles only. Otherwise, if we learn of promotional content mixed with news content, we may exclude your entire publication from Google News.”

This clearly shows how Google is aware and concerned about the issue for so long and how strongly it has felt about it. In fact, HERE‘s an interesting case in point about the same.

Could your Paid News impact your Google search results?

Google has been a significant player in Paid News as it displays such articles in its search results. If there are guidelines for regulating Sponsored Content in a more stringent manner, it remains to be seen how Google will comply with guidelines and whether it will continue to display Paid News in its search results for news websites.

If this happens, it remains a big question what will happen to the numerous Sponsored Content (Paid News) articles which have already been uploaded by Indian websites. Will they have to be pulled down by websites? Will they have to be categorically marked as Paid News? Will the concept of branded and paid news content continue afterwards? Will the Disclaimers below Brand Posts become even more prominent and express clarity that the articles have been paid for, or are promotional in nature, like advertisements? These are questions about media ethics only time will answer.

Currently the Google News policies on ads and sponsored content reads, “Advertising and other paid promotional material on your pages shouldn’t exceed your content. We don’t allow content that conceals or misrepresents sponsored content as independent, editorial content. Sponsorship, including, but not limited to, ownership or affiliate interest, payment, or material support, should be clearly disclosed to readers. The subject of sponsored content shouldn’t focus on the sponsor without clear disclosure.”

To sum it up, from an ethical standpoint, disclosure of Sponsored Content in digital media, including news website articles, would be a step in the right direction towards more ethical journalism. And that time may not be far away.

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