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Terry Stawar

The Pew Research Center recently reported that in 2017 over two-thirds of Americans got their news from social media. The information we receive, however, is selective and depends largely upon the links we decide to follow. These decisions are usually based on the appeal of various headlines known as clickbait.

Clickbait has evolved as marketers develop more sophisticated strategies to engage readers. Their immediate goal, however, is to entice viewers into clicking on a hyperlink that takes the viewer to specific content, along with advertisements that the marketer wants you to see. The more people who click and view the content, the more money the marketer makes.

The content, itself, is often disappointing. It may be made up, poorly researched or even plagiarized. In most cases, however, the content is irrelevant since the goal is to increase brand recognition so that some company can more easily sell you something. Clickbait is so pervasive in social media that many viewers are constantly jumping from link to link. Marguerite McNeal, a San Francisco writer, says, “The internet can feel like a giant rabbit hole, and odds are that clickbait plays a role.”

In 2015 Merriam-Webster added “clickbait” to its dictionary. It’s defined as: “Something, such as a headline, designed to make readers want to click a hyperlink, especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.”

Clickbait has its roots in the “yellow journalism” of the 1890s, when newspapers resorted to lurid headlines, comic strips and sensationalism to drive up circulation. This tradition survives in the tabloids of today. The late New York Post editor, Vinnie Musetto, crafted the infamous 1983 headline, “Headless Body in Topless Bar,” which many considered to be “the godfather of clickbait.”

Headlines and titles are usually the prerogative of the editor. I once wrote an article on therapy dogs for Dog World Magazine. I had sent them other articles and on each occasion the editor changed the title. This time I decided that I wouldn’t bother coming up with a proper title, so I just slapped the goofiest title I could think of on the article. I called it “Calling Dr. Dog” after the way hospitals employed public address systems to page doctors. Wouldn’t you know it, they kept my embarrassing title and it was even placed on the magazine cover, as a sort of canine clickbait.

The main strategies employed in designing clickbait headlines involve: (1) satisfying curiosity, (2) evoking strong emotions, (3) makings us feel good, (4) appealing to our egos, (5) invoking nostalgia, and (6) making the reading experience as easy as possible.

A Norwegian study found that headlines containing questions had 150 percent more clicks than declarative headlines. Curiosity can be evoked by clickbait through the use of phrases such as “you will never believe what happens next.” George Loewenstein from Carnegie Mellon University says that when people experience a gap between what they know and what they want to know, they become highly motivated to seek out information. It is a “mental itch” that begs to be scratched, according to McNeal. Gaining such information not only makes the reader feel smarter, but also it potentially gives them something of value to share with others.

Jonah Berger from the University of Pennsylvania believes that emotional arousal is the most important factor in clicking on a link. He says, “Anger, anxiety, humor, excitement, inspiration, surprise — all of these are punchy emotions that clickbait headlines rely on… “ Fear is also an emotion that, for survival purposes, grabs our attention. My wife Diane and I were horrified by a recent Facebook post describing how the flu progresses to pneumonia and then to sepsis.

Lists and numbers attract attention while assuring viewers that there is a pre-determined endpoint. Lists appear organized, banish complexity and ambiguity, and provide an illusion of precision and certainty. Moreover they are usually easier to read.

Quizzes are also widespread in clickbait content. These are easy to write and inspire readers to feel smart and special. Nostalgia within content is also a feel-good strategy. I recently saw a list of restaurants that have gone out of business and many quizzes ask about old television shows or things that characterized different decades, like music, hairstyles and dances.

Since clickbait headlines employ emotional ploys, false promises and dubious content, you would think their effectiveness would gradually diminish. It turns out this process is sort of like panning for gold or playing slot machines. Psychological research have shown that behaviors that are rewarded only occasionally typically last the longest.

In 2014, Facebook announced its initiative to take action against clickbait in order to weed out misleading and exaggerated headlines in its posts. Facebook changed its algorithm to take into account how much time users spend reading a story they’ve clicked on and whether they comment on or share the article. They supposedly de-prioritize posts with headlines that “withhold information required to understand what the content of the article is and headlines that exaggerate the article to create misleading expectations.” Based on recent posts I’ve seen, it’s not clear how successful they have been.

Diane and I have noticed that some clickbait articles make you scroll through a number of views until they eventually provide the content promised by the headline. Some list articles use a slide show format forcing you look at a number of separate pages, often with content on each page. In the middle of some of these the page may simply freeze up, leaving the viewer frustrated and disappointed. This, of course, doesn’t matter to the marketers who already have the clicks and page views they desired.

In a similar fashion, some articles end suddenly without warning. There may be a notice that you have won a prize, as well as an attempt to direct you to a site that tries to sell you something. This is the point where clickbait transforms into “bait and switch.”

It is easy to fall into the clickbait trap, but by being aware of some of the strategies, perhaps viewers can be more discriminating in responding to headlines and selecting content. Regardless of clickbait promises, all of us should look on online content that is unattributed, has a political ax to grind, or is simply unbelievable with a healthy dose of skepticism.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D. lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring Health Systems, a behavioral health and primary care center headquartered in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@gmail.com.

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