The Dangers of Clickbait and Fake News


Before this article begins I would like to state that this article is not talking about trusted news sources. However, it is talking about clickbait titles and fake news that some websites distribute.

Clickbaiting has become an issue that is one of the most commonly talked about and most commonly talked about themes in television and online media. Coming up with over-the-top, hyperbolic, and extreme headlines in the attempt to get people to click on them has become the social norm. This issue is nothing new, but what used to be just a mild annoyance has taken on a very sinister tone. As clickbait has become more common, it has given birth to a far more dangerous relative: fake news.

Websites and newspapers have started blatantly lying and passing it off as fact just to get a click, one of the largest times this has occurred is the aftermath of the election. After the election, the news was blamed for swaying voters, suppressing voters, creating scandals, and outright lying about simple facts such as which candidate got more votes. For weeks after the election, people didn’t know which candidate won more votes, simply because on different news outlets the results would flip back and forth.

However, to understand the media of today, it would be beneficial to go back to when clickbaiting was first used. In the mid-1800s when newspapers were sold on street corners to get people to impulsively buy the newspapers, newsboys had to shout out the headlines, which meant that, the headlines had to be catchy. Once people realized that exaggerated headlines would sell more on the streets than cut-and-dry news stories, the age of yellow journalism began. Yellow journalism is classified as ‘news’ that is badly researched. It consists of mostly guess-work and is supported by very large statements with very little evidence. Yellow journalism tends to cover political scandals and corruption, racist coverage, etc. Once the paper had been bought, or in the case of modern media had been clicked, it didn’t matter what the content was. In fact, some companies favored it if the story was false because then, the paper could run an exposé, then an argument, drawing out a clickable headline for more and more papers on those clickable subjects. These subjects kept people on top of the scandal that would never have existed if the newspaper had done their research in the first place. Which raises the question: Why do we have this problem? It’s because these companies don’t make money off of the articles they write. These companies make their money off of the advertisements on the page. They report on current content to get you to watch or read just so you’re there when the next ad slots itself in.

The way fake news will be conquered is going to take a change of mind. The first step will be to stop thinking about the blogs of people’s opinions as news because they’re not. Their product isn’t news, it’s advertising space. Take this line of thought to its logical conclusion and you get something that makes a whole lot of sense when you consider it. Google? It’s not making a whole lot of money off of its search engine, or the new tech it’s producing. Its profit comes from the ads. According to Bloomberg Businessweek, $76.1 billion dollars (or around 90%) of Google’s income come from Google’s ad business. As a previous executive of the company, who has chosen to stay anonymous, has said, “No one wants to face the reality that this is an advertising company with a bunch of hobbies,” creating products where it can then place ads. News is just a fancy word for a genre of entertainment, stories that may, or may not, be real to get your attention and sell some commercial breaks in the process.

The real danger that clickbaiting and fake news holds is not the articles themselves, but instead, clickbaiting and fake news articles do an exceptionally good job at making people share the fake news. They do this by playing with the emotion that is the most powerful for fake news: anger. An influential study of 200,000 Twitter users in China, conducted by MIT, showed that angry posts on social media are three times more likely to spread through shares or retweets than any other emotion. When looking back through news posts from the past year, the top stories that dominate headlines are racial tension, senseless violence, and people’s rights being threatened. These are the posts that are getting the most shares, not reasoned arguments and analyses. The anger from these articles prompts an immediate action. In your mind, there’s no time for fact-checking because the immediate response is to hit retweet and to tell everyone we know about this so that everyone can be as enraged as we are.

We’re in an age of ripple effect entertainment where one small post or story, can escalate and grow into a much bigger much more dangerous thing. In a world where one person posts a fake story or manufactures a fake news image on Twitter, it picks up momentum, gets some shares or retweets and suddenly smaller blogs start picking it up and larger accounts start to talk about it, until it’s all the way up to mainstream media and big time news outlets. By the time it reaches mainstream media it is almost impossible to find the original source and since no one has gone back to that source to fact check it we rely on the posts of others. Bandwagoning has made fake news what it is today. One example of this happening is in 2007 and the release of the iPhone. The blog Engadget reported on authority that the iPhone’s release date was getting pushed back from June to October, and potentially later. A graph provided by Tech Digest showed that in less than 15 minutes after the blog post, Apple’s value as a company dropped by four billion dollars. Luckily Apple was able to clarify the situation and recover most of it’s lost money by the end of the day, but it just goes to show how dangerous this stuff can be. Especially when it’s influencing the candidates we vote for, the way we choose to spend our money, and the way we feel about people in other cultures.

The dangers of clickbait and the fake news it generates have only proven to be dangerous. So how do we deal with the issue? Newspapers have been dealing with this problem for a long time, but way back when yellow journalism was a problem, one of the first big answers was designing a system that wasn’t based on selling papers on street corners anymore. It was based on, of all things, subscriptions. When subscriptions started the newspapers and had a subscriber base they could count on, they didn’t have to worry about whether their headlines were attractive enough to sell to the same customers every day. They had a consistent source of income that they could rely upon. That in turn, let the journalists relax a little bit and enabled them to print more normal looking stories, and maybe even spend some time fact-checking them. Meanwhile, the subscribers were supporting a product they believed in, and that they trusted to deliver regular content. Lots of newspapers still have a subscribership model and it is exactly because of this. If you are financially supporting the paper, it shouldn’t have to rely on sleazy tactics to stay afloat.

As the world moves into a new era of communication we, as people, deserve to know a way to combat clickbait and fake news. The easiest way of combating fake news is to support the news outlets that you trust. By giving these companies financial support you create a bond between the company and yourself and because of the bond, you receive more accurate information. The world is changing so find the groups you support and stick with them.