By Larry Magid
It seems as if complaints roll in every time Facebook makes a change to its News Feed. But I have no complaint with the latest change designed to cut back on “clickbait.”
In a statement, Facebook defined clickbait as “headlines that intentionally leave out crucial information, or mislead people, forcing people to click to find out the answer.” Examples they cited included “He Put Garlic In His Shoes Before Going To Bed And What Happens Next Is Hard To Believe”; or “The Dog Barked At The Deliveryman And His Reaction Was Priceless.”
The problem with clickbait is that it usually leads people to web pages with what is mostly banal or misleading information. And it’s not just a problem on Facebook. I see clickbait all over the web.
While I’m personally not a big fan of sensational headlines, I respect the first amendment rights of websites and news organizations to generate stories designed to provoke or even titillate. But I don’t like false advertising, which is too often the case with these types of links.
If you’re going to promise a sensational story, then you should deliver one, hopefully based on accurate information. And clickbait isn’t just headlines, it can also be eye-catching pictures that promise but fail to deliver visually stimulating experiences. Tricking people into clicking on a story or image that is unlikely to deliver what’s promised is wasting their time and possibly even money if they’re on a mobile device with limited free data.
That’s not to say that headlines have to summarize an entire article. Headline writing is a difficult art, one I’ve never fully mastered, and the goal is to draw readers in without misleading them. Headlines can be a bit provocative, but they should never be misleading.
The same is true with what radio and TV folks call a “tease.” It’s that preview of a story — often just before a commercial break — designed to keep the listener or viewer tuned in. I record one every day for my KCBS radio tech segment and they’re sometimes more challenging than the segment itself.
Facebook took on clickbait in a 2014 News Feed update, but the problem didn’t go away. “People are still telling us they would prefer to see clearly written headlines that help them decide how they want to spend their time and not waste time on what they click,” wrote Facebook researchers Alex Peysakhovich and Kristin Hendrix.
This time, they’re using a system that identifies phrases commonly used in clickbait that withholds information required to understand what the article is about or “exaggerates the article to create misleading expectations for the reader.” Links from pages or domains that appear to be clickbait will appear lower in users’ News Feeds. Facebook added that if an affected page stops the practice, its posts will stop being impacted by the changed algorithm.
While this change is mostly aimed at pages typically operated by companies or organizations, it’s worth pointing out that individuals can also be guilty of posting links or sharing other people’s clickbait link or — worse — false stories.
Don’t share false rumors
Posting and sharing of rumors and falsehoods is one of my pet peeves. Just as a journalist can be held responsible for passing on a false story even if it came from someone they thought was honest, so should everyone take responsibility to make at least some effort to determine the accuracy of what they pass on.
Years ago there was a claim that the U.S. Post Office was about to impose a 5 cent tax on email and there were many people who posted the claim President Obama was born in Kenya. As the late senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”
If you see something online that you’re tempted to pass on, do a quick search to see if it’s true. You can look it up on Snopes.com, which does its best to determine whether rumors are true or false or you can just do a web search. Computer browsers make that really easy. Simply highlight some of text, right click and look it up on Google or Bing to see if you can find if it’s been verified or disproved. If it’s a claim by a political candidate, look it up on Politifact.org, which does a great job analyzing statements for accuracy, inaccuracy or — often — something in between.
Clicking on links from Facebook and many other websites can yield some great information. But if the headline is misleading or outrageous, it’s best not to take the bait.