OPINION | BRENDA LOOPER: All for the clicks

I had a lot to think about over the weekend: what would have been my brother Corey's 60th birthday, the third anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol, the unexpected snow Friday, and countless other things. There was good reason I spent Friday evening and part of Saturday with friends and my fur-nephews.

But something stuck with me: clickbait. If you use the Internet at all, you've seen clickbait, which may be the seemingly innocuous "Doctors recommend these foods for insomnia. No. 7 will surprise you" or "At 87, see Kevin Costner's true love," which in addition to leading to potentially dangerous sites that could steal your information are generally not as advertised and factually wrong.

At least with the bulk of liberal BuzzFeed's clickbait (it, along with Upworthy, helped make clickbait as ubiquitous as it is, so blame them), you'll be entertained by cute animals or weird news; watch for those slow-loading pages, though.

According to social media marketing company BluLeadz's blog, "Clickbait is content calculated to maximize reader clicks, attention, and shares. Of course, all content is meant to be read and most aspire to be shared, but clickbait is different. It uses emotional hooks to create nearly irresistible psychological frisson for the unsuspecting user."

BluLeadz notes that the curiosity gap, "the space between what we know and what we want to know," is one reason clickbait works, taking on our dislike of ambiguity (which means our brains kick in to monitor and respond to possible threats), the tendency to obsess over unfinished tasks, and fear of missing out.

In most cases, you're really not missing out on much because the clickbait rarely delivers much but annoyance and frustration (and of course that danger of being hacked).

But there's another type of clickbait related to news operations. The approaches taken to headlines in newsletters and elsewhere show the difference between responsible and not-so-responsible news organizations.

Let's take, as an example of the former, a headline from a breaking-news email sent out Saturday by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: "Razorbacks suffer biggest loss ever at Bud Walton Arena," with the addition of "The 25th-ranked Auburn basketball team handed Arkansas its most lopsided home loss in the 31-season history of Bud Walton Arena on Saturday."

The headline makes you want to read the story, and doesn't mislead the reader by misrepresenting the story as something other than what it is. It has an interesting hook, and doesn't muddy the waters with opinion. The story itself adds interesting history as well as on-the-spot reaction to the game. The headline is clickbait, but the responsible kind.

For an example of the latter, let's look at something from the Daily Signal, published by the Heritage Foundation. Ad Fontes Media ranks the site's bias as "strong right," and its reliability as "unreliable, problematic." (The Democrat-Gazette, in comparison, is ranked as "middle" with "reliable analysis/fact reporting.")

On Monday, Daily Signal published "BOMBSHELL: 200 Undercover FBI Assets at U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, Congressman Estimates." I can at least say the headline is somewhat truthful, as a congressman did claim this. However, when you read the piece, Rep. Clay Higgins of Louisiana presents not actual evidence but conspiracy theories about informants and other "deep state" actors who he claims led protesters to where they'd be able to be implicated and arrested for taking part in the attack, and shocked agreement from Tucker Carlson that it must be true. This isn't a news story, but simply a synopsis of what was said in an interview, with no effort to verify information; the intent is to inflame, not inform.

Research has shown that extreme emotion such as what's seen on the Daily Signal is very effective in clickbait.

In the 2015 article "Breaking the News: First Impressions Matter on Online News," researchers Julio Reis, Fabricio Benevenuto, Pedro Vaz de Melo, Raquel Prates, Haewoon Kwak and Jisun An found that the sentiment of the headline is strongly related to its popularity and to the comments on the article. Neutral headlines fare more poorly than positive or negative ones, and negative headlines outnumber all, as do negative comments, regardless of whether the news is negative, positive or neutral. The more extreme the emotion in the headline, the better performance it generally has (which helps explain the popularity of a lot of actual fake news).

And a lot of the time, the contents of the story don't even matter. I can't count the number of times when I was a clerk that I'd answer the phone and hear someone complain that some fact wasn't acknowledged in an article. Nine times out of 10, that fact was usually somewhere in the next few paragraphs.

Our attention spans have become so short that we think the whole story is in the headline or the first paragraph, especially if it fits our worldview.

Read? What? Just sum it up for me, thanks.

Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Email her at blooper@adgnewsroom.com. Read her blog at blooper0223.wordpress.com.

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