Picture yourself walking down the sidewalk. You see someone standing in the middle of the road spouting incredible nonsense. This immediately upsets you … so you take all the cash out of your wallet and give it to the person shouting in the middle of the street.
Crazy? Well, that scenario happens millions of times on the Internet every single day. For example, maybe you’ve recently seen this headline:
“Young girl suspended for saying Bless You”
That headline and many others were splashed across the web this week following an inflammatory news story out of Tennessee. According to the “source,” a teenager at a Tennessee public school was suspended for quietly offering a “bless you” to a sneezy classmate. The source explained that the teacher is hostile to religion and banished the student for trying to defend her Constitutional right.
The accused student’s Facebook page. Yep, countless adults across this great nation spent at least one day in the last week righteously indignant because of something some kid posted on her Facebook page. Several news agencies picked up the story and essentially ran the girl’s post unedited and without comment or follow up research.
They did exactly zero real journalism, but they presented the information right alongside actual news stories.
Here are just a few facts not reported or reported incorrectly in nearly every version of the story published. These facts uncovered using the crack journalism technique of Talking To The Principal.
- The student was not suspended (minor detail, I know)
- The student was reprimanded for shouting “bless you” loudly across a classroom
- When called out, the student stood up and began shouting at the teacher
- She was sent to the office and placed in a separate room until the end of the class period, when she was sent back to class
Why was none of this reported by the countless “news” sites that published this one-sided misinformation? Why would they do it? You trust this news source to deal honestly with you. Doesn’t this situation undermine their integrity? Well, yes.
…but these sites are not in the business of integrity.
They are in the business of making money. And stories like this make them a TON of money. It starts with a term called “clickbait.”
clickbait – Noun (n)
(Internet marketing, pejorative) Website content that is aimed at generating advertising revenue, especially at the expense of quality or accuracy, relying on sensationalist headlines to attract click-throughs.
As the definition implies, the term “clickbait” is an advertising term. People reflexively click because the headlines short circuit their logic and appeal right to emotion. It works REALLY well. Statistics are pretty clear on this. It works so well that news agencies now do the same thing. Meanwhile, you’re just scrolling the day’s events, blissfully unaware that “news” agencies are using infomercial psychology to get you all spun out.
You will click. It’s what happens next that makes ALL the difference.
Here are a few questions you should ask while reading anything online
Are the facts presented accurately?
If the “facts” presented are simply someone’s opinion, this is not news. Click away immediately, because you are being manipulated.
Was any research done?
In the case of the example story, all the reported information came from the student’s FB page. It would have been easy to learn more, but in this case a complete story would not have generated the angry reaction the site needs to make a profit.
Does the story fit a particular one-sided narrative?
We ALL have issues we care deeply about, and, because we are emotionally tied to those topics, it can be difficult to be fair-minded about them.
So … what then?
What can you, as an honest news consumer, do about clickbait? First, you can starve the machine. DO NOT COMMENT. Ever. Even to contradict the story. That might sound backwards, but the poster of that misinformation does not care WHAT the comments are, they ONLY care that the story gets comments. Because this is how they GET PAID. When a story draws massive clicks (including comments and shares) that enables sites (blogs, news sites, whatever) to charge more for advertising. So, if you are enraged at misinformation and decide to get into a flame war with some partisan troll, you are working against yourself.
…the poster of that misinformation does not care WHAT the comments are, they ONLY care that the story gets comments. Because this is how they GET PAID.
So, just stop commenting. When news sources see that their legitimate stories are receiving more comments than their ridiculous clickbait, they—like any good fisherman—will switch to the bait that works.
It’s a process, and it will take time. But remember YOU decide whether or not the Internet can lie to you. You have all the power.
Don’t take the bait.