ClickBait took over… And here are 3 solutions to push back

Jean Jullien

“An auto executive talks up gas. The guy next to him who builds space rockets puts him in his place.”

“His ‘robot lawyer’ has helped people beat 160,000 parking tickets. Here’s what’s next.”

“Our parents are missing the one trait that makes America truly great.”

We’ve come to expect these catchy news headlines. I know because I’ve clicked on all of them (and more).
On a good morning the day will start off early, with enough time to go through a whole slew of publications. It typically involves The New York Times, The Economist, Business Insider, and a few others I’m not too proud to admit. At some point though, I’ll start noticing these types of headlines. The ones I shake my head at but click anyway.

One could simply put a lid on all the clickbait and shocking news stories instead of reading into them — I certainly have kept this mindset. But if we look at how much headlines have changed in the last century or even the last ten years, it’s astounding. What’s troublesome is the impact these headlines have on us. Even when we don’t read the article, the headline shouts at us, waving for attention.

These are real headlines!

Failure to Edit:

In a study done at the University of Michigan, neuroscientists looked at the topic of misinformation and how it relates to headlines. They designed an experiment in which people were told a story of a fire at a warehouse.

The control group was provided with the real headline and article. On the other hand, the test group was given an article that mentioned “cans of oil paint and gas cylinders” in the room — a potential source of the fire — but then immediately corrected itself, stating that the room, was in fact, empty.

When the people’s responses to the experiment were analyzed, the scientists were shocked. The test subjects, when asked about the possible cause of the fire, overwhelmingly pointed to “cans of oil paint and gas cylinders” — something that never existed. Even after substantial time had passed, the same recall would happen. People simply ignored the correction. The lasting memory stuck and the damage was done. In this study, 90% of people made reference to the false information.

It certainly leaves us at a crossroad; the temptation to click misleading headlines is too high. It takes a monk-like discipline to avoid them all. But shocking and misleading headlines weren’t always the norm.


There are American newspapers that typify just about every era. We had the revolutionary newspapers during the War for Independence, with Ben Franklin’s writing affecting the outcome of the war. By the 20th century, characters like Hearst became infamous for bringing yellow journalism into the mainstream. Perhaps he’s to blame for the current state of affairs, a colorful history that brings our current age of clickbait into perspective. And as for the internet age…

For much of the early internet era, it resembled a small community with people trying to connect and a friendly message board driven news community. By the mid-2000’s with its explosion in popularity and reliance on search engines, journalists and bloggers were more interested in attracting the attention of search engines than they were of direct viewers. Sites essentially lived and died by their page ranking. However, as the web switched from search engine based to social media driven, we saw a gigantic shift, with the penultimate moment being the arrival of Upworthy.

“The Google self and the Facebook self, in other words, are pretty different people. There’s a big difference between “you are what you click” and “you are what you share.”
-Eli Pariser Founder of Upworthy

The New Era

Started by Eli Pariser, the former executive director of MoveOn, and Peter Koechley, the former managing editor of The Onion, Upworthy set out with a very politically oriented goal of reaching people who “supported gay marriage” and “believed in climate change.” 

Claims of objectivity went out the window, and they doubled down on their goal of presenting their viewpoint as beyond debate and scaling massively. Within two years from their start, they’d scaled massively and reached 87 million uniques a month, a number larger than the New York Times readership.

There’s certainly no going back to a more romantic era in media, and that leaves us in a precarious situation. The information gap in headlines and the emotional triggers aren’t going anywhere. And no amount of willpower will keep you away from the clickbait forever.

Fortunately, there are a few things we can do to avoid being misled by misinformation and clickbait.

Beyond Clickbait

  1. Look at the source. The most obvious solution is to look at the source and avoid the writers who routinely use clickbait. The most egregious cases seemed to come from the same writers.

  2. If you read something outrageous in a headline and the writer backtracks within the article, stop, note, and process. What’s the new reasoning that they’ve made? Unless your brain processes this subtle change, the misinformation will stick.

  3. If the information gap is too large in the headline or, the image and the headline aren’t congruent, avoid the article. Images that show a fire burning down a forest next to an article that talks about economic markets are trying to pull on your emotions rather than engage with you logically.

We live an interesting time, where those who choose to stay informed ironically are more likely to receive misinformation. It takes a tactile mind to sidestep this and filter out the noise.

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