Apr 18 2016

The Age of Click-Bait

A recent article in The Guardian discusses the current pressures in newsrooms that is eroding quality control. The article brings up many rather sobering points, but will hardly be news to anyone who frequents the internet.

The internet and social media have rapidly revolutionized the way we communicate, find, and consume news. Large publishers able to maintain a significant infrastructure are no longer the gatekeepers of information. This has both positive and negative ramifications.

While no one likes the idea of fat-cat publishers having all the power – deciding what news to print, which programs to air, which albums to produce, etc. – they did provide a filter. They filtered out the vast background noise, providing at least an opportunity for quality control. How they used that opportunity determined the reputation of the outlet. We still has the National Enquirer, but everyone knew it was a grocery store tabloid.

Now the filters are largely gone. The internet is filled with all the noise. We still have news outlets, aggregators, and brands based on perceived quality. Essentially there are few top-down controls, only bottom-up market forces at work. So what have those market forces brought us?

Kevin Rawlinson argues in The Guardian, and I agree, that it has brought us into the age of click bait. He focuses on newsrooms, but I will extend his argument.

News outlets are now all about clicks, because clicks equal money. You can track clicks in real time on any article. You can see where those clicks are coming from. People can upvote or downvote what you put out there. Shares are currency.

Without the need for the investment in a brick and mortar infrastructure, this allows for a business model built upon generating clicks. All you need to do is set up a website, put ads on that website, and then lure people to that website with content. You can do this by aggregating other people’s content, you can steal content, or you can generate your own content.

There are many legitimate sites on the internet, genuinely concerned with quality, or with a cause. However, they are mixed in with countless sites that are all about the clicks. Rawlinson argues convincingly that traditional news outlets are sliding into clickbait, more than blurring the lines, erasing any meaningful differences.

The incentives are to put out stories quickly that will generate clicks. The ultimate prize for a young reporter is no longer a Pulitzer celebrating their quality and hard work, but having a story go viral.

When a sensational story hits there is no time to double-source it, to fact check, or to go to primary sources. The story is happening on the internet. Incentives favor just putting out the story, letting your headline writer generate the maximal click-bait headline, and beat out the competition so that you reap all the clicks when the story goes viral.

Here is an interesting wrinkle I had not considered before – Rawlinson reports that outlets no longer care about being corrected when the story turns out to be fake. That is simply another story for them to report, and another opportunity for clicks. Correcting fake or exaggerated stories is now just part of the news cycle (or should we start calling it the click cycle).

At the extreme end are sites that make no attempt to report actual news. They make up and report fake news, news items optimized for clicks unhindered by reality. I was recently asked by an SGU listener, for example, about this story about a Spanish man who died of an allergic reaction to a GMO tomato that had a fish gene in it. He was sincerely concerned about the implications of this story for the safety of GMOs.

He had no idea the story was entirely fake. In fact, there are no GMO tomatoes on the market. The insertion of a cold tolerance gene from a Winter Flounder into produce, like strawberries and tomatoes, was a research concept, but was never brought to fruition. The idea, however, has been used for anti-GMO propaganda, and this fake news outlet was just playing on those fears.

This raises another manifestation of the click-bait era that Rawlinson did not cover. He was mostly concerned about real and fake news outlets. There is another type of outlet, however, and that is the narrative-driven outlet. These outlets don’t sell just any click-bait, but rather they are tailoring their click-bait to a particular audience by catering to a certain narrative.

Fox News is perhaps the outlet most people think of when the idea of selling a narrative as news is brought up. The phenomenon is insidious – not only does it reinforce a particular worldview (which admittedly is nothing new) the process is an interactive one between them and their audience. They align their narrative to their target audience, but over time they also align their audience to their narrative.

You don’t even have to generate content to do this. The Drudge Report is the perfect internet example. That site is just an aggregator of content, mostly political news with a smattering of other news. However, the narrative drives which news stories are linked, and how prominently they are presented. News stories are cherry picked to create a biased view of reality. Even if individual news stories are legitimate, you are viewing the world through someone else’s filter.

This brings us right back to the age of big producers controlling content. They are now not gatekeepers, just aggregators with a large audience. They can help determine whether or not a story goes viral.

Some have observed, and I think this idea is intriguing, that Donald Trump is the first real click-bait era presidential candidate. The gatekeepers (party bosses) are no longer in control. Trump is getting the clicks (votes) by being the presidential candidate version of click-bait. He is catering to a particular narrative, being sensational, and doing what it takes to get media attention.

It is almost as if he is a designed social psychology experiment. How far can someone go as a presidential candidate of a major party without any coherent policy, without any experience, and while violating all of the usual standards of presidential behavior, just by throwing regular click-bait sensational material at the media?

Obviously the Trump phenomenon is about more than click-bait, but I do wonder if he could have happened in an age prior to what we have now.


One thing is clear – the top-down filters are all but gone, and we are living in the wild-west of online news and information. What this means is that each individual has to have their own filters in place. You have to be skeptical of everything you read online.

I do wonder to what extent market forces will favor the evolution of new mechanisms of quality control. There are already sites like Snopes that will investigate stories and indicate whether they are real or fake, but that takes extra effort many people won’t make. We are starting to see some voluntary quality control seals of approval, but those too can be spoofed, and they require a great deal of effort to monitor and evaluate outlets.

I am also curious about the net effect of all of this. Are people better informed now or just misinformed? My personal observation leads me to conclude that both are happening. We are seeing greater polarization. If you have critical thinking skills and a genuine desire to verify the information you come across online, the internet is a powerful tool to make you better informed.

Without these personal filters, however, the internet is also a fire hose of not only misinformation, but crafted misinformation designed to push your buttons and create echochambers in which particular narratives are magnified.

We are not only living in the age of click-bait. We are living in the age of polarization.

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