When comedian Jon Stewart was asked what he read online, he replied:
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.
He was referencing one of several kinds of clickbait, defined as web content of a provocative or sensational nature designed to attract readers. This subset uses exaggeration or outright lies in headlines to get more views, versus a more benign subset of clickbait that uses headlines with annoying subjectivity and grandiose promises of reaction (i.e., “You Won’t Believe What Happens Next”).
Both forms stand apart from satire (i.e., “Obama To Limit Gun Owners to One Mass Shooting Each”), which is its own subset.
When considering the relationship between news, clickbait, and the truth, I see little point in addressing at any length clickbait headlines injected with annoying subjectivity and big promises.
Take Tuesday’s Upworthy story, “A Ballet Company’s Response to One Football Fan’s Sexist Insult on Facebook Was Epic.” The bait here is opinion-based. Is it sexist to say a football team played like they were wearing tutus? A ballet company and an Upworthy writer certainly thought so. Was the company’s response truly “epic”? Or was it just “great”? How is epicness (epicity?) measured?
Headlines that use lies and misrepresentation are substantially more dangerous, at least to any person who values the truth, wants others to know the truth, and despises witnessing falsities shared on social media.
Bear in mind, the headline for this article is both misleading and satirical. First, I’m not addressing headlines of annoying subjectivity and promises of reaction like “The Answer May Shock You.” How would I know if you’ll be shocked?
Second, who does clickbait “better” is a matter of opinion. Who does it most convincingly would be an interesting scientific study (Fox News viewers are less informed than consumers of other news media). Who does it more often would too, and as I spend much time reading far left websites (Socialist Worker, Mother Jones, Alternet, Think Progress, The Nation, etc.) and face-palming after seeing some things conservative friends share on social media, I would say more outright lies appear in rightwing headlines. But I’m biased; that is my perspective, not a conclusion produced by the scientific method.
But without further ado, let’s look at some case studies, and the degree of exaggeration and lies found in both liberal and conservative news headlines. You can click on the images to read the full stories.
DIFFERENCES IN DEFINITIONS
“A Terrorist Just Fire-Bombed a California Mosque While People Were Inside,” U.S. Uncut (liberal), 12/11/2015
As liberals and conservatives debate the definition of “terrorist,” some on the Right may find this a misleading headline worthy of one of the harsher labels used below. Terrorism is usually defined as violence or the threat of violence to coerce or intimidate, especially for political purposes.
If terrorism often includes political purposes but not always, U.S. Uncut is justified in using “terrorist.” (“Fire-Bombed” is acceptable, as a molotov cocktail falls neatly with the bounds of that descriptor.) If political purposes must be involved, it becomes trickier. Some attacks, such as the almost yearly firebombing of abortion clinics or murder of doctors, can rightly be called terrorism using conservatives’ definition. But others, like an attack on a mosque, may be more controversial.
An attack on a mosque can safely be characterized as a hate crime stemming from racial and religious hatred. But how cleanly can that be divorced from the political atmosphere in which the attack takes place, for example a time of widespread debate over whether Muslims should be president, be forced to carry religious-based identification (see below), or be allowed to enter the U.S. at all? How easy is it to say both “the attack was due to hatred and bigotry” and “the attack was not a statement on what U.S. policy toward Muslims should be”?
It’s safe to say that if a Muslim firebombed a Christian church, many conservatives would be quick to call it terrorism, even if the perpetrator’s hatred of Christians was distinctly separate from his views on government policy toward Christians, Muslims, Muslim nations, etc.
“Donald Trump Says Muslims Should be Forced to Wear ‘Special ID Badges,’” Counter Current News (liberal), 11/19/2015
Donald Trump is a truly despicable human being, and has said worse about Muslims, but he didn’t say this precisely. If you see a headline like this, the article had better back up exactly what it claims with evidence.
Sadly, Counter Current News doesn’t do this. The article itself says, “Trump refused to rule out a government requirement for Muslims to carry special identification cards or patches that would identify them by their faith.”
Basically, a reporter asked Trump if his plans for tracking Muslims might involve registering them in a database or “giving them a form of special identification,” to which the heartless ogre replied, “We’re going to have to look at a lot of things very closely. We’re going to have to look at a lot of the mosques.”
So Trump refused to condemn such a notion, he didn’t “say” it himself. Nowhere in the article does the writer provide evidence that the special identification would be worn, that it would be a “badge.”
“2,000 White Teens Brawl at Kentucky Mall, No Arrests,” Black Talk Radio Network (liberal), 12/27/2015
“Media Fails to Identify the Race of 1,000-2,000 Black Teens that Shut Down a Kentucky Mall,” Right Wing News (conservative), 12/28/2015
What a difference a day makes. This is an interesting case study of two articles, one liberal and one conservative, saying completely opposite things.
When you read the article under a headline claiming the teens were white, you find no mention of race whatsoever!
Thank God we have Right Wing News to set the record straight.
Yet despite the fact that Right Wing News’ headline boldly declares 1,000-2,000 black teens created the chaos, it offers little evidence for the racial makeup of the group. “The teenagers involved in this incident were black,” it says, beside a photo of black shoppers, some running, from the local news station.
Is that all we get? No source other than a single photo? No estimates from local authorities on the percentage of the teens who were black? No quotes from witnesses or participants? Were 100% of the teenagers black? Or only 90%? The headline certainly seems to imply each and every troublemaker was black, yet this isn’t backed up with any actual evidence.
Remember, I’m not examining directly the truthfulness of articles, but rather if bold claims in a headline are supported by evidence in the article itself. Perhaps all the teens involved in fights were black. But if an article offers no evidence in support of a provocative headline, it is clickbait.
Instead, this author focuses his time on castigating CBS and even Fox News for being “corrupt media machine[s]” that hide facts that fail to “fit their agenda.” “Minorities behaving badly will always be unreported as much as possible.”
Would this writer grow so upset if the media didn’t report the racial breakdown of fights involving many whites, say, during Black Friday riots or after a national championship? Well, they don’t and likely not.
Apparently, calling out the young people’s race in order to highlight racist myths about the innate criminality, aggressiveness, and deviancy of blacks doesn’t quite fit the media “agenda.”
“Germany: Mass Sexual Assault by Muslim Migrants Reported New Year’s Eve; Coward Officials Accused of Cover-Up,” Wounded American Warrior (conservative), 1/5/2016
Who wouldn’t trust a wounded American warrior?
Comparing this headline to the article that accompanies it, there’s clearly distortion similar to our case study above. The headline claims Muslims attacked people in Cologne, Germany. Yet the sources used never characterize the attackers as Muslim, only “Arab or North African men.”
Believe it or not, not all Arabs and North Africans are Muslim.
While the headline emphasized mass sexual assaults, the article states 30% of the complaints during the chaos sown by Arab or North African men were of sexual assault. The majority of problems, including but not limited to robbery, were not sexual in nature, so perhaps a more accurate headline could have been crafted.
Further, the headline calls German officials “cowards,” but the writer presents no evidence of a cover-up, only mentioning others have accused officials of trying to hide the truth when it took days for the attacks to be officially confirmed. (Is there no other possible explanation, say, taking time to gather the facts? Also, does covering up information automatically make one a coward? Why not “evil”? Or “sinister”? Or “biased”?)
But this article crosses the boundary from distortion into blatant lies. The headline claims the attackers were “migrants,” which is sure to stoke anti-immigrant hatred. Does the article offer any evidence the men were migrants?
No. In fact, the only word on the matter is the complete opposite!
But the police have also insisted that many of the men had been known to them for some time and that they were not a group of newly-arrived refugees.
It’s fine if Wounded American Warrior doesn’t believe the German police. But if it is to claim the attackers are migrants, it had better have good evidence to support it.
“Obama Wants to Shut Them Down for Sharing Their Faith on TV…And Then THIS Happen,” American News (conservative), 11/5/2015
That’s no typo. The headline literally ends with “Then THIS Happen,” if that gives you any indication of the quality of the report you’re about to read.
Here American News breaks the story: the President of the United States wants to shut down HGTV’s “Fixer Upper” because the hosts are Christians.
Yet the article and the accompanying video merely talk about how the hosts became Christians. There is no mention of Obama whatsoever, no peep about perceived persecution!
Also on the site: a picture of Obama the Muslim, who redecorates the White House and dons a turban in preparation for his jihad.
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