Why Clickbait Is Even Worse Than Fake News

Facebook is making it very publicly clear that it is acting on fake news. To be honest, it has to. The social media giant is the Grand Central Station of the unwelcome new media development. As such, only deleting thousands of accounts and talking about how it has improved efforts to spot and remove fake news will do.

The announcements were all made in France before Macron's victory on Sunday, as was a ten-point guide to spotting fake news that is to be run as full-page national newspaper advertising campaign in the UK ahead of June's vote.

This is all well and good, but consider this. Don't we have just as an insidious ingress of clickbait colouring our political landscape? In the age of people not bothering to read a news story but sharing it anyway, if the headline connects to their views, clickbait is the longer-term problem that will erode the facts. For those stupid enough to believe that a particular leader is in the hands of the enemy and has billions in foreign accounts, then there is little that clamping down on fake news will do.

Sure, there are some very subtle stories that make you look twice and wonder why the "mainstream media" or (MSM) isn't covering an amazing story. Just as with phishing emails, however, they're usually pretty easy to spot. If your leader really were a spy for some foreign power or had had someone murdered, I can assure you the "MSM" would be all over it as a matter of priority. 

For me, then, clickbait is the malaise that needs to be tackled, particularly ahead of an election. It's because it is commercially driven and so it's falling upon typically skilled writers to come up with an angle that will make people click through and share it so other people click through and share it some more. So what if the angle is proven and the headline justified? Thousands clicked, and that's great for business.

It's particularly poignant for me this morning after a friend shared a post from a Scottish newspaper saying that many of the Tories that were elected in last week's shock local election swing were "extremists." "Of course, they were, they're the dreaded Tories, let's share the news," is clearly how some people felt as it cropped up in my Facebook timeline. I've included the link as evidence, but caution against adding to the paper's revenue stream by clicking on the article.

My guide to spotting clickbait, particularly political news-driven clickbait is pretty simple. Rule number one is what does the headline say, and how is this reflected in the first paragraph? Crucially, how does any picture that has been added to the story relate to what is discussed in the first paragraph or two? If there seems little correlation, if a damning headline has not landed a killer blow on someone in the first paragraph or two, you are almost certainly reading clickbait.

In the Scottish example, a picture of Enoch Powell was used. For those not in the the know, he was a politician who spoke out against immigration and is synonymous in the UK as the poster boy for racism. Putting his picture with a headline saying new Tory councillors are extremists is a very bold, provocative statement. However, Powell isn't mentioned until halfway down, and even then, it's a very jumbled reference that doesn't accuse anyone feature of supporting him or quoting him. It's a hugely irresponsible thing to do, but of course, I bet it got a lot of people clicking away.

We then have the modern era's equivalent of gossip, trawling through social feeds to find something someone perhaps shouldn't have liked. One councillor had fallen for the trap that many of us have -- liking a post by Britain First. These guys are very good at presenting statements and celebrating something British, prompting people to "like" them before realising they're a bunch of racists. I've done it. Many people I know have followed suit and apologised to their timeline for their mistake. 

Then we have a councillor who suggested in a post that people wanting free meals for their kids at school should consider having fewer kids so the taxpayer wasn't burdened with feeding them. Probably not the smartest statement that someone who wants to be in politics would come up with. But is it proof that the new wave of incoming councillors are extremist and worthy of being represented by a picture of the country's most famous racist? I really don't think so.

So while the debate about fake news carries on, as it should, I think we should all be mindful of clickbait that is bordering on fake news. In many cases it's worse because it's perpetrated by media organisations that really should know better and is repeated with the sole intention of a shock headline getting clicks and advertising money.

There is a pretty fine line between the two, but I would urge everyone to be vigilant about both clickbait and fake news and be willing to call out both. If we think the job is done because some Facebook accounts are closed, then we are seriously deluding ourselves. Facebook is the messenger, not the originator.

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