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Bet You Won't Click Right Here

21 June 2018

It’s no secret that advertising revenue drives the Internet. Online advertising has surpassed 200 billion dollars and reaches nearly every corner of the Internet. Online ads make up the majority of the revenue of Internet giants including Facebook and Google and pay for many other free-to-use services and account for an estimated 25% to 40% of Internet traffic on some networks, in one study. To convince us to click, ads have evolved to be increasingly intrusive and targeted. Some sites even run ads that look like normal news articles.

The actual ads are only part of the story. Without people to see them and, sites hope, to click on them, ads don’t make money. As soon as someone leaves or decides not to visit in the first place, a site is losing money. This is part of the reason that sites add features to keep us coming back. Notifications, “likes,” infinite scrolling, and other features that a former Facebook engineer describes as “bright dings of pseudo-pleasure” have an addictive effect so that we won’t stay away. Social media sites have, in some ways, managed to convince us that they’re a cure for boredom. Each time we’re bored we want to be entertained, so we hop back on our social network of choice to avoid being bored.

These types of tactics don’t work to get people to visit a site in the first place though. Somehow, addictive features or not, a site needs to convince you to visit. Thus, “clickbait” headlines were invented. Clickbait titles usually try to provide just enough information to make us curious but not enough to satisfy the curiosity, so we’ll click on the link. There’s no guarantee that the article we find ourselves on satisfies the curiosity. Former Daily Show host Jon Stewart describes clickbait titles as carnival barkers in his Internet use:

“I scroll around, but when I look at the internet, I feel the same as when I’m walking through Coney Island. It’s like carnival barkers, and they all sit out there and go, “Come on in here and see a three-legged man!” So you walk in and it’s a guy with a crutch.”

Clickbait has an effect whether we actually click the article and whether we recognize it for what it is. While plenty of clickbait articles are generally harmless time wasters, the same tactics are being adopted by news outlets hoping to gain more readers and again, more ad revenue. Clickbait from news sites tends to take the form of sensationalized headlines that the site hopes will get an emotional response because emotionally charged clickbait is easier for people to fall for. This is not, as some might like to believe, isolated to a particular political leaning. Fake news and sites that provide no true reporting that rely on clickbait-style headlines exist across the political spectrum. Unfortunately, studies show that only about 4 in 10 people actually read articles beyond the headlines.

We compound the problem of clickbait by sharing clickbait headlines with our friends. Clickbait titles are easy to share (or re-share) and can spread through social media like wildfire. Social media shares are highly important in determining which headlines spread and which vanish into relative obscurity. Sites have caught on to this and expanded their tactics to include “sharebait” which are headlines designed to go viral on social media. The tactic works even if the articles contain nothing of substance (or even nothing true) because studies show that people are willing to share articles they haven’t read if they react to the headlines. On Facebook, six in ten people were willing to re-share an article without actually reading it.

Habitually sharing without reading isn’t a small-scale problem and may have very real effects on the political landscape. In the last three months of the 2016 presidential election, sharing of fake news on Facebook, most of which was pro-Trump or anti-Clinton, took the network by storm and overtook shares of factual news by about 1.4 million shares. While on a social media scale this is fairly small and unlikely to influence election outcomes—Facebook also says that shares don’t indicate overall engagement with the articles—it highlights how effective clickbait and sharebait techniques are, and suggests that they could become a major problem.

All of this is part of the game for online media. The more shares, clicks, and views they gather, the more ad revenue comes in and the more valuable ad space on their site becomes. Whatever attracts you—an ad, a clickbait title, or something else—websites hope that you’ll see it, share it, and maybe read the first few sentences in order to show some ads. We’re driving these tactics because they work even when we’re aware of them, and only a minority of people actually take the time to read and dig past the headline.

Care about an open and neutral Internet? Check out my book, Please Upgrade for Access, at book.thenaterhood.com.

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