I’ve been tricked more times than I care to admit. You’ve probably been misled as well.

Does this ring a bell? You’re reading a real news story online, and below it – or embedded within it – is an interesting headline that captures your attention.

Click. Then bam!

You’ve been fooled by fake news. Perhaps you skipped right over a line that said “Paid Promoted Stories” or “Sponsored Content.”

Next thing you know, you’re reading what you thought was a real news story about how to ease your fatigue, but it’s really an ad for a vitamin supplement.

Or you might be enticed by a headline that says, “The IRS ‘Cheat Code’ to Move Your IRA/401(k) to Gold.” I would know not to click on that one, but undoubtedly some people fall for it. With the uncertainty hovering over the stock market, might you be tempted to move all your retirement money to precious metals? The shady outfit pitching this highly risky investment strategy sure hopes so.


There was a lot of criticism last week about Pepsi’s ad featuring Kendall Jenner and how the beverage company appropriated recent social and political protest movements to sell soda. At least it was obvious that Pepsi was pushing a soft drink.

The outrage about Pepsi’s blunder was warranted, but there’s a situation that has been trending for some time now that we need to be equally concerned about: ads masquerading as genuine media-generated stories.

On the home pages of legitimate news sources – The Washington Post, The New York Times and other publications – are articles that may not immediately be recognized as advertiser-driven content.

The news organizations need the ad revenue. And it helps keep the free press affordable.

April is Financial Literacy Month. It’s an annual effort by various consumer advocacy groups to highlight the need for all of us to be better informed. As part of this year’s campaign, the FoolProof Foundation has rolled out a “Fake News” resource page on its website (www.foolproofme.com/topics/fake-news).

Here is some of the trickery they spotlight:


 Native advertising. Because consumers have become more adept at skipping or blocking advertising, marketers have become more creative and covert, says Mara Einstein, a professor at Queens College, CUNY and author of “Black Ops Advertising.”

Native advertising refers to any paid product pitch that’s designed to resemble a publication’s editorial content. Because it looks like content that readers trust, they are more apt to let down their guard, Einstein said in an interview.

“In the digital space, advertisers are able to hide,” she added. “You don’t know you are reading something with a sponsor behind it.”

Einstein recommends limiting notifications from legitimate news sources, especially on your smartphone, which, in turn, will reduce the time you spend online and reduce your exposure to ads pretending to be news. She also suggests using browser plug-ins like Ghostery and Disconnect to block websites from tracking you.

 Listicles. These are articles that are nothing more than lists. BuzzFeed is masterful at these. It recently published “23 Things That Will Make You Feel Like An Adult In April: Tips, tricks, and products that are not too taxing (you know, because your taxes are due April 18).”

Catching on to the popularity of list-type stories, advertisers sometimes sponsor hollow albeit entertaining listicles.


 Clickbait. Watch out for headlines that are cunningly written to reel you into an ad — as with the headline mentioned above purporting to reveal a “cheat code” for the IRS.

FoolProof’s site also has a number of good videos. Two that I’d recommend – especially for children – are “Most Young People Don’t Know When News Is Fake. Do You?” and “Fake News Targets Your Pocketbook and Your Welfare.”

A Stanford University study found that more than 80 percent of middle-school students, many digitally literate, believed that an advertisement that was identified as “sponsor content” was a real news story.

“When it comes to evaluating information that flows through social-media channels, they are easily duped,” the Stanford report said.

Understanding the evolving strategies by marketers and advertisers will ultimately save you real money and real time.

Michelle Singletary can be contacted at:


Twitter: SingletaryM

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