Clickbait is dead. Or at least, it is in the process of dying. In August 2016, Facebook implemented a new algorithm to filter out clickbait from its newsfeeds . By analyzing user responses, key words, and the source of a post, the social media giant is reducing the presence of clickbait. This is a much-needed preventative measure against the eyesore of modern journalism. But in its place, something much more sinister is festering.
Even Buzzfeed, the very epitome of clickbait, stated in a 2014 article that “clickbait stopped working around 2009” . But that is not to say it has completely fallen out of the playbook of publishers seeking web traffic. If anything, clickbait is a little more honest these days. Buzzfeed titles, such as “13 Awesome Products Canadians are Putting On Their Amazon Wish Lists,” explicitly state the content of the article . Gone are the days when headlines like “You’ll Never Look at Cookies the Same Way Again” captured the interest of readers. Publishers have come to realise that misleading clickbait is self-destructive; it diminishes the credibility of its source. However, the fact remains that readers will click as long as they are hooked by headlines.
So if clickbait is minimally effective, how else have publishers been driving traffic and revenue since 2009? The answer is twofold: sponsored content and shareable content. Both are fundamentally biased in both concept and execution.
Native content (also known as sponsored content) can be difficult to discern from actual journalism. These are ads that wear the mask of an editorial article. Unfortunately, AdBlocker cannot remedy this. Brands looking for publicity commission publishing companies to write editorial or news articles that promote their product or brand. Native content is a genuinely smart marketing strategy; ads disguised as journalism borrow the credibility of legitimate newspapers, making consumers think that they are receiving genuine recommendations. But as with any sponsored content, writers are incentivized to be biased in favour of the corporation that is writing their next paycheck. So instead of misleading headlines, we have misleading content. This is in no doubt magnitudes worse than wasting the reader’s time; it is deliberately misinforming the reader. While most news companies have taken to labeling native ads as “sponsored,” these statements have very low visibility and are never directly mentioned in the article. After all, they’ve got to keep the paying customers happy, not the readers.
Shareable content is another solution developed by editors to grow an online audience. E-newspapers are making it more compelling for readers to do the marketing for them, as word of mouth is one of the most effective types of advertisement. The catch? Shareable content is designed to be just that: shareable, regardless of quality and truth. In fact, publishers have made the crafting of shareable content an artform. The creation of shareable content prioritizes what the audience wants to hear over what the audience needs to hear. The golden rule of news reporting—objectivity—is thrown out the window if a writer wants to make a story appealing to the readers. Readers want an emotional hook, so reporters treat news stories as works of semi-fiction instead of what they should be: products of fact.
On 20 December, 2016, Yahoo News published a story about the 2016 Berlin Christmas market attack . Not only does the article outline the events and repeat witness statements, but it also speculates on the impact of the attack. The title is “Berlin attack may make Merkel’s re-election quest rougher,” an analytical statement by a news reporter that is meant to make the article “shareable” . And while there is substantial evidence that Merkel’s path to reelection will be difficult, just the headline of the article should disqualify it from being categorized as news. News by definition is a factual retelling of a non-fictional event. If news were opinionated, readers who consider the news to be the indisputable truth would take the writer’s interpretations as fact.
Aside from news stories with inappropriate statements, news sites have begun using statistics to dictate what should be published. Learning from previous successes, news sources repeat content or keywords that attract a large volume of readers. Yahoo News, which has a dismal reputation because of the dreadful quality of its content , uses popular searches to curate its content . This is not inherently wrong, but the results can be disastrous. It’s also probably why “First known footage of an apparent ghost shark goes viral” was reposted under the science category .
Native content and shareable content contain the worst qualities of clickbait: deceptive words and lack of quality. While clickbait is fizzling out of existence, its legacy remains. And there is little readers can do to protest against these facets of modern journalism. As long as the fish bite, publishers will continue to cast a line—using appealing journalism as bait. And while we can be complacent and accept the lure we are presented with, we should refuse. The bait should be what we need to read, not what is appealing to read.