Clickbaits affect how we consume and interpret media. We’ve all hopped on Google for a quick answer, surfed Twitter or Facebook in our spare time, and we’ve all seen ads promising the seemingly impossible. That means we’ve all seen clickbait before, in one form or another, but just in case, here’s a quick description of what clickbait is. Clickbait is part of the trifecta of nefarious misinformation running rampant in today’s society. The others being, bad journalism, and absolutely outright false news. All of which directly affect the credibility of real journalism and, by extension, the way journalists are viewed.
Clickbait is the use of misleading and fantastical imagery, language, audio-visual content, and scare tactics to trick someone into clicking an ad or link to a product, sales pitch, or “news brief” with little or nothing to do with the info on the tin. The term “clickbait” was coined by Jay Geiger way back in 2006. Even though the term is referencing the click of a mouse, on a computer, similar methods are also done in print media or televised media. It’s not correct to assume this is a phenomenon that exists only as part of digital media.
A clickbait will often come in the form of extraordinary imagery with the promise of some life-changing product or knowledge that simply does not exist; I refer to these things as “magic hokum” personally. No, instead, you wind up reading or watching something completely lacking the promised “magic hokum” you were looking for, be it diet pills that let you eat anything you want and look like a runway model or some sort of shockingly amazing news about your favorite celebrity.
Nope! What you usually get is some mundane, half-assed list of top ten celebrity photobombs or a sales pitch for some holistic woo-woo pill that claims to help you gain the body you want, but it’s just cheap powered sadness in a capsule.
The problem and some examples
“Ahh, so what‽” you might be asking, it’s harmless, sure it’s a little white lie, but it’s not hurting anyone. And that, readers, is precisely what advertisers want you to think. Here are a few reasons clickbait is an issue. We can start with my number one gripe.
1. The Elderly and others new to the Internet may not be able to tell the difference between a scare tactic and essential information.
You go to visit grandma, and while chatting over tea, you find out she’s been shelling out $200.00 a month to some “security firm” for data monitoring on her phone to keep “the dark web” away. This kind of scam is common and often targets the elderly who are already more cautious about newer technologies as it is. I’m not saying the Dark Web is not a thing, it is, and I suggest avoiding it all cost.
2. Clickbaits can expose kids to things that they really shouldn’t be seeing.
All it takes is one little mistake by an ad bot for a kid to be exposed to the wonderworld of “enhancement” I have had some of my friends complain that otherwise safe children’s websites have on more than one occasion advertised things like “stamina pills.” A kid sees a picture of a model on the ad, thinks they look cool or pretty or what have you, and it turns out to be an add for some bogus supplement. No one wants that.
3. The image you clicked through for is never on the list.
You go ahead and click a link against your better judgment because there is a really cool looking animal or something on the ad. After a long slog through a lits of pretty average animals, you are left without even a glimpse of the thing you clicked through for. The same goes for “stunning places to visit” or “mysterious monsters caught on camera.”
4. That new game with your favorite anime that you saw on Instagram as an ad has nothing to do with the linked mobile game.
You scroll down your Instagram feed, and as you pass by all the things you enjoy, there are also ads from which some are more relevant to you, and others are not. Sometimes you encounter a video of an interesting-looking game that might even feature your favorite movie or anime characters in the cutscenes and plan on installing it.
Sometimes they even steal footage from console games of other publishers and pretend it’s their mobile game with “stunning graphics.” As soon as you follow the link, however, you find out that it has nothing to do with the advertised clips and that they haven’t done much. In the app store, they flag the release as “early access” to bypass quality checks, and the installed game might even contain malware. By keeping releases permanently in the state of “early access” they can always claim that the final product is planned to contain all that advertised contents even if that is never going to happen. Go back to Instagram and report the ad accordingly so it can be removed.
Why use clickbaits in the first place?
You might be wondering why Clickbait became a thing in the first place. The answer is in the money. It’s not always a product for sale or ad revenue, it can be political warfare or a crowdfunding campaign, but it always comes down to money one way or another. Unfortunately, how the economy on the Internet works, you can make more money with high volumes of low-quality content than with lower volumes of researched and informative content. There should be a way to monetize the quality and usefulness of information as well if this trend is to be stopped.
How does it work?
There is strong evidence that the kind of imagery and language used in clickbait excites the dopamine reward response in our brain. Fundamentally speaking, we are addicted to engaging content. If our minds are always seeking this next information fix and an ad provider can find a way to give us the fix cheap and fast, the likelihood of us clicking through is very high.
In doing so we are paying those ad pros and incentivizing them at the same time, this is a lose-lose for most people as clickbait titles and images rarely if ever meet the mark, usually leaving us with a feeling of wasted time and a little bit of lost, so we go off looking for our next hit.
The impact on the press, the public trust, and education
We’ve talked about the localized impact on individuals and the addiction aspect of clickbaits, but there is another side of this tarnished coin. Clickbaits are heavily affecting the perception of online news that people are losing faith in online journalism. You see it all the time now. We seem to live in a time where people will believe the more radical, sensationalized fluff pieces and disregard vetted, fact-checked news, dismissing it as either “fake news” or “boring” this effect is spreading like wildfire. More and more people are getting their news from social media and less from dedicated journalistic outlets. How ethical can a publisher be if they embed misinforming or misguiding ads?
The lack of standards and journalistic integrity amongst these pseudo journalistic sites and revenue-based news pieces leaves much to be desired. If your source is corrupt, the information is likely wrong leading people to learn things that simply are not true. Many reputable news organizations also publish good news but insert third-party clickbait ads beneath the actual content. This might be even worse as some users might be led to believe that the target article is also part of the original outlet’s regular offering. Examples for third-party clickbait ad syndication are, for instance, Taboola and Outbrain (click the links to see a list of their primary publishers).
A good example is when “sources” claiming to have a cure for COVID-19, even though there isn’t one yet. This is only one example out of many that shows the damage caused by “clickbaity” articles and headlines or ads leading to “magic hokum,” false, malicious, and inaccurate content. Don’t be fooled, best to vet your news and fact-check anything that seems off. And for goodness sake, don’t click anything that says to “do this one crazy trick.”
Closing thoughts from the author
We are all part of this big beautiful blue ball called Earth, and what we say and write matters. If we want to move forward, we have to be honest and reliable. We have to be trustworthy, and we have to be able to believe in others. We live in the strangest time, and we have a responsibility to do our part to make it better. Be honest, write with integrity, don’t work with partners you don’t ethically value, and remember the world is still round, and we did land on the moon. Goodnight.
Photo credit: The feature image was done by Sam Carter. The “blue-skinned girl” photo was taken by Daniel. “Slice of pizza with cigarettes” was created by Wei Ding. The image of the body statue was made by John Jackson. The image “state of the union” was done by ActionVance.
Source: Grammarist / Andy Greenberg (Forbes) / Kenji Kobayashi, Ming Hsu (PNAS) / Peter Suciu (Forbes) / WHO
Editorial notice: All images created for this article serve as a method example. Every headline that is part of the images has been made up for educational purposes.