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Why what happened to The Atlantic will probably happen again and again ... and again

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On Monday, a story appeared on The Atlantic entitled “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to a Milestone Year.” The story presented a glowing summary of the organization’s milestones, and was clearly marked as “sponsored content,” one of those tricky terms used in an attempt to blur the line between “journalism” and “advertising.”

I have no interest in debating the merits of “sponsored content” or Scientology, but I was struck by the fact that hours later I saw this story appear on Prismatic, a news aggregator that tries to personalize news based on various algorithms. And, yes, this is vaguely the type of work I do for WaPo Labs, the Washington Post Company’s digital team.

It’s noteworthy that on Prismatic, the “sponsored” label was entirely stripped away. If this was the first place you encountered this story, you would assume that The Atlantic had written the piece, not that The Church of Scientology had written it and paid for its placement on The Atlantic’s Web site similar to a banner ad.

This migration probably happened without human intervention. Presumably, Prismatic runs a bot that crawls popular news sites, aggregating and classifying content. That bot sorts these stories by various terms and tries to recommend where users should spend their next few moments. I reached out to Prismatic to confirm details about their process, but I have yet to receive a response. In this case, a very important piece of meta data was lost in translation: the fact that the content was actually a commercial.

What Prismatic got right is that the Scientology ad is a big story. Many people are writing about it, including the magazine’s staff. But what it lost demonstrates a real concern behind sponsored content — the fact that aggregators also act as filters. They sometimes brush away important details. In this case, it was an honest oversight, but one that will very likely be made time and time again.

There is an interesting parallel to this problem running billions of times a week at the stock exchanges. Computers are making digital bets where the speed of light helps determine the winner. An error in the algorithm can cause catastrophic market damage, as witnessed in 2010 when the so-called “Flash Crash” caused the Dow to plummet in seconds as a broken script ran amok, and other scripts tried to compensate.

When this happened, astronomical dollar sums vaporized and then re-materialized as algorithms continued their betting in the face of the unexpected. The stakes for The Atlantic were not nearly as high, of course. Although it’s tough to put a value on reputation.

The original post was labeled, but something got lost in translation by aggregation. The naive crawlers of one aggregator lost a critical piece of context, completely changing the nature of the text from a commercial to a piece of journalism neatly pegged to The Atlantic’s brand and reputation. The only practical solution is undesirable: to incorporate some form of financial disclosure into the lead of the text and that might be too much of a bitter pill for advertisers to swallow.

No matter what the answer is, as algorithms increasingly shape the news, and sponsors increasingly write content co-hosted on news media domains, we’re going to see a lot more of this.

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