Education Influencers, Please Disclose Your Partnerships with Vendors | Opinion

High-profile educators like to talk about tech tools and other products they like. We need to know if they’re being paid to do so.

While the term “social media influencer” is often reserved for internet celebrities, a quick scroll through the #EduTwitter (or InstaEd, or even EduFB) community will reveal the growing list of educators who also fall into the coveted influencer category. This year, ISTE (the International Society for Technology Educators) launched a new podcast, Ed Influencers, which consists of interviews with people ISTE has identified as among the “most prominent education innovators.”

You might be wondering what makes one educator more “prominent” than another. While I can’t speak to the criteria ISTE uses to select subjects for its podcast, I can say that, in general, the two things that most separate these big fish from the others in their respective ponds are a) the number of followers these educators have amassed on various social media platforms, sometimes in the hundreds of thousands; and b) their willingness to leverage those networks for a variety of purposes—some of which offer financial rewards.

When an educator with tens of thousands of followers posts about a product they love, many of those followers immediately update their online shopping carts. It’s not surprising that this kind of marketing power is valuable to companies that sell products aimed at teachers and school districts. Nor should it come as a surprise that many of these vendors seek partnerships with the most influential educators out there.

These relationships with vendors can come in many forms. Some influencers receive free products in exchange for honest reviews of them, while others receive regular stipends, or even salaries, in exchange for featuring a vendor’s products online. What might be surprising, however, is that most non-influencer teacher types are unaware of these relationships, because of how infrequently they are disclosed. And therein lies the rub.

I want to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with securing a financial partnership with a company whose products you believe in. Educators have limited budgets to purchase supplies for students. Recommendations from trusted leaders are a way to ensure those limited funds are spent effectively. And if those with influence are willing to serve as beta testers, that’s awesome. However, when librarians are concerned, the lack of transparency related to these arrangements is disturbing, especially when we consider the school librarian’s important role as media literacy leader.

That role was galvanized by a 2016 Stanford History Education Group study focusing on the inability of American students to determine the credibility of information accessed online. One finding: Over 80 percent of the nearly 8,000 public school students surveyed couldn’t distinguish between sponsored (ad) and editorial content. This, and multiple analyses of how often adults share fake (verses accurate) content online, sounded an alarm for all educators and librarians in particular: Information literacy could no longer be taught in the same old (and often limited) ways.

Since then, librarians have mobilized to lead the charge against disinformation. It’s a noble calling, and one that can appear a bit hypocritical in this context. Let’s be honest: It’s tough to take all the hand-wringing about kids failing to identify sponsored from editorial content online seriously when some of the most influential among us make no effort to differentiate that content for their own readers.

And here’s the thing: Disclosing our partnerships with vendors in the posts in which we share their products is so easy! Starting such content with a sentence like, “______ book company sent me these ARCs to review, and here are my thoughts…” or simply including hashtags like #ad, #paidpartnership or #sponsoredcontent at the end of the post will let followers know that while you might genuinely love a product, you also received some compensation (which might just be the box of free products themselves) in exchange for talking about them.

You don’t have to say, “Hey! I’m paid a monthly salary to feature products by ____ in my social media feed.” But all educators who claim to care about how disinformation is affecting the world our kids will inherit, have both an opportunity and obligation to model the kind of transparency that makes navigating that world easier.

This isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the lawful thing. The Federal Trade Commission’s Endorsement Guides provide that if there is a material connection between an endorser and an advertiser “that connection should be clearly and conspicuously disclosed.” What’s more, the FTC defines a material connection as a “business or family relationship, monetary payment, or the gift of a free product.” Simply put, educators who fail to disclose these relationships in related posts are (knowingly or not) breaking the law.

So here’s my advice.

If you’re an EduInfluencer: Do the work. Add a blurb to the “about me” page on your blog or website that lets your readers know that some of the content you post is sponsored. Then, clearly and conspicuously disclose those relationships in all your posts—both on that website and on social media. If the vendors you are working with have a problem with that, seek other partnerships. And if you’re an influencer but choose not to accept endorsements of any kind, disclose that, too. Either way, you’ll be admired for your transparency.

And if you’re not an EduInfluencer: ask questions. You don’t have to be aggressive, but asking things like, “Hey… just curious, did you receive those products in exchange for a review?” or “I notice you share ____ products a lot, do you have a partnership with them?” will let everyone in your network know that you value transparency and that you care about how educators act as leaders in social media spaces. Plus, you’ll be modeling the essential skill of inquiry that is now required for all of us living in an age in which determining information credibility is more essential than ever.

While I’m not a particularly nostalgic person who laments the passing of the “good old days,” I think it’s important to remember that there used to be an explicit division between editorial and commercial content. That dividing line that mitigated the influence of advertising in news content was called the firewall. While we’ve come to think of that term as meaning other things, there was a time, when it acted as a foundational component of the journalistic code of ethics to make sure that financial gain didn’t become a factor in deciding how, when, where or why to report the news.

While the disintegration of that firewall, and how its demise has affected all of us, is a conversation for another day, it’s important to remember our responsibility to act in its absence. Without the benefit of something like an ethical firewall, those of us with influence online have to take steps to ensure that our activities in these spaces avoid the influence of anything other than our desire to make the world better. In the end, we are responsible for the content we post and the example we set, not only for other educators but also, and most importantly, for our students who count on us to lead the way.

Jennifer LaGarde is a lifelong teacher and learner who is passionate about leveraging tech to help students develop authentic reading lives, meeting the needs of students living in poverty, and helping learners discern fact from fiction. A huge YA lit fan, Jennifer lives in Olympia, WA. Follow her at www.librarygirl.net or on Twitter @jenniferlagarde.

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James Allen null

Thank you for your article. "However, when librarians are concerned, the lack of transparency related to these arrangements is disturbing, especially when we consider the school librarian’s important role as media literacy leader." I'm just curious how many librarians you feel are in this position? How many other educators? Do you see more and more of this? How do you distinguish between an honest review or a paid one? At what point would should a non-influencer expect someone to provide this information to us one way or the other?

Posted : Sep 28, 2019 01:45


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