News organisations want people to read the articles they publish. Otherwise, what’s the point?
So they take a lot of effort to get their articles in front of readers. But where is the line? Which methods are okay and which are going too far?
At Dublin Inquirer, we publish articles each week on our website, and then share them on various social-media platforms, and via our email newsletter and WhatsApp group.
We publish them in a monthly print edition, which we post to subscribers, and deliver to Dublin city libraries and a couple of stockists.
Sometimes we even make posters out of individual articles and put those up in the neighbourhoods they are about.
We have done radio appearances to talk about the articles, or emailed them personally to other reporters who might be interested in following them up.
So far, so good, and staying on the right side of the line, yeah?
What about paying Meta to show our Facebook or Instagram posts to more people? What about targeting them at specific demographics or geographic areas or people with certain interests?
Or what about writing the article and headline and everything in a certain way, with the help of the search-engine optimisation (SEO) tool Yoast, to make it more attractive to search engines so it’ll come up higher in search results? And then what about paying search engines to put it higher in the results?
Is all that still on the right side of the line?
Okay, then what about paying bots or people to like or share or retweet a social-media post so the algorithm will think it is very popular and show it to more people? And so people will think it’s popular, and maybe be more likely to click it to find out why?
Is that going too far? Is that stepping over the line?
How to pay for popularity
First, a quick how-to.
To keep things simple, I’m just going to focus on a single platform, and I’m going to choose Twitter – because I spend way too much time on it.
If a news organisation wanted to, they could create a Twitter bot to retweet or like their articles. Twitter offers a guide on how to make a bot.
“Twitter bots are an integral part of the conversation on Twitter,” it says.
To do this, though, they’d need a Twitter developer account, which costs $100 a month to send up to 3,000 tweets a month, or $5,000 to send up to 300,000 tweets.
One bot wouldn’t be enough, though. It’d take a whole chorus of bots to make the news organisation’s tweets look popular to readers and the algorithm.
And the bots should have followers. So someone would probably have to either buy followers for each bot, or have each one go around following people to get follows back.
That’s a bunch of money, and a bunch of time. Much easier would be to pay a service that already has a megaphone of Twitter accounts to order them to do your bidding.
Social Crow, for example, is one of many such services. “For years we have been building up a large following of dedicated users that get paid to follow and help support our clients,” their website says.
If you pay Social Crow, they’ll boost accounts on a whole range of platforms, from Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, to TikTok, Twitch and YouTube, their website says.
Their prices depend on whether you want interaction from accounts that are created for that purpose, or personal accounts that people have anyway and use regularly – and are also getting paid to use to help you, a spokesperson said by email.
To get 1,000 likes and retweets for a tweet about an article Dublin Inquirer published last week, Social Crow’s website quotes £22.69.
If we paid Social Crow to do that, though, the people following the accounts that Social Crow pays to like or retweet the article might not be interested in it.
“Our services cannot be as direct as to only target people in Ireland,” the Social Crow spokesperson said.
“However, what will happen is that Twitter will see that your content is being shared more regularly, thus improving your engagement rate, so Twitter will promote it and display it on more people’s feeds,” they said.
Is paying for engagement likely to get your account banned from Twitter?
“Although our services do not align with Twitter’s policy, your account will not be deleted, restricted, or have any other form of negative effect from using our services,” says the Social Crow spokesperson.
“If it worked as such, rival companies would buy followers to get each other banned on Twitter,” they said.
Whether to pay for popularity
So it’s possible for a news organisation to pay to have a cacophony of social media accounts boost its articles. But should it?
When I started reporting this column, I thought it might not be the most effective method of getting more people to read an article, but that it’d be fine to do.
After all, my thinking went, what matters is whether the article is legit – on an interest of public interest, reported in an ethical way – not how a news organisation gets it in front of people.
And what’s the difference between paying Twitter to promote an article, and paying someone to promote an article on Twitter? I thought.
But when I asked John Burns, until recently associate editor of the Sunday Times, about this, he said there is a difference.
If you pay for likes and retweets, you’re deceiving people into thinking your tweet and article is more popular than they are, he says.
News organisations should not deceive people, Burns says.
Adrian Acosta, CEO of Journal Media, also said that paying for likes or tweets or shares is stepping over the line.
If you pay Twitter to boost your tweet, it’ll be marked as a promoted post. But if you pay for a posse of accounts to retweet it, there’s no (intentional) sign you’ve done that.
“Maybe it’s not people you are trying to deceive, maybe you just want to deceive whatever obscure magic is behind the platform,” Acosta says.
But “the problem is you’re not disclosing that there is a commercial relationship with the endorser”, he said. “People are endorsing it because they’re being paid to, not because they like it.”
Using SEO tools to tutor yourself on how to write your article and headline so it comes up higher in search rankings is less deceiving the algorithm than optimising your article for the algorithm, Acosta says. And it doesn’t deceive readers, Acosta says.
Eileen Culloty, assistant professor in Dublin City University’s School of Communications and deputy director of the Institute for Media, Democracy and Society, also said that news organisations shouldn’t buy likes and retweets.
It’s deceptive, Culloty said, “and shouldn’t be done by a legitimate organisation”.
However, “news orgs that use advertorials or native advertising are far more concerning than news orgs that pay to promote their content”, she said.
“It’s ethically wrong to present advertising that looks like a news story and obviously damaging to credibility,” she said. “No matter what news media must be transparent and accountable to the public about what they are doing,” she said.
A place for bots?
There’s definitely a place for news organisations to use digital tools in innovative ways to distribute news articles, says Culloty, of DCU.
“The reality is that not enough people go direct to news websites so news stories are left to compete in the chaotic algorithmic world the platforms have created,” she says.
About 39 percent of people who came to our website in the past week came directly, while 38 percent came via search engines, and 22 percent via social media, according to our analytics.
Bots have a bad reputation, an association with spam and fake accounts trying to make content seem more popular than it is, she says.
But “there are underexplored uses of bots and targeting tools that could help reach new audiences”, Culloty says.
For example, if a news organisation has done a great investigation into lobbying against climate action, typically it might publish and share the article and then move on.
“But that story remains relevant so there could be some level of automation to promote it for a longer period, especially if climate change is in the news for other reasons,” she says.
In the spirit of transparency, it’s worth saying that neither I nor Dublin Inquirer have ever bought followers, likes, retweets, shares or anything like that.
If we ever decide it’s a good idea and do it, we’ll tell you that’s what we’re doing, and why we decided to do it.
And we’ll also have a think about other ways we might use bots to help distribute our articles.