Content marketing strategies were born to help companies reach customers.
Provide a steady stream of articles or videos with curiosity-piquing headlines, content-marketing wisdom said, and internet audiences will engage with them. Increased engagement prompts search engines to continue bumping the content’s source to the top of the list, reaching more audiences who can’t resist a click. The cycle repeats.
Content marketing strategies, however, tend to be content-neutral: They work regardless of whether the content in question is an innocuous attempt to sell a household item or an insidious endeavor to sell extreme ideologies.
And some sources of extreme ideologies have taken advantage of this fact. It’s why so many white nationalist and other extreme right-wing views often come packaged in the same style as “five weird tricks to eliminate cellulite!” — and why internet users need to understand clickbait tricks in order to fight back.
Clickbait, Information Addiction and the Psychology of Headlines
Clickbait is specifically designed to hook our attention and reel us in. Often, the content promised by a clickbait title is sparse in the actual article or video. Instead, we’re presented with a handful of photos or one-line quips scattered among a slew of ads.
It only takes a few rounds of clickbait ads before the average internet user can predict what a clickbait-y title has in store for them. Yet even when we know what’s in store, we often can’t resist clicking the link.
There are several reasons we fall for clickbait, says psychologist Mike Brooks, Ph.D. First, information has survival value for humans, which means that we’re drawn to sources of new information — especially when the price of access is a simple click.
“Clickbait works, in part, because the promise of compelling information activates a particular dopamine pathway,” Brooks says. “Dopamine is released and creates an itch that can only be scratched by obtaining the promised information.”
Clickbait is also appealing because it piques our curiosity. We want to know “what’s behind the curtain,” Brooks says. This desire to know is also the result of a dopamine release, which is implicated in the sense of satisfaction we get from discovering the answer.
What is the one weird trick that will save me $500 on my car insurance? How did these 15 shocking celebrity marriages end? Clicking satisfies our curiosity … until the next headline comes along.
The power of clickbait, however, persists beyond the moment we click to satisfy our itch to know. Clickbait also derives power from the psychology of headlines themselves.
How First Impressions Change Our Memories
Headlines provide our first introduction to the contents of an article. As popular wisdom holds, first impressions make a difference: They influence how we feel or think about a person or subject.
Research indicates, however, that first impressions do more than influence our feelings. They also influence what we are capable of remembering from an interaction or event.
For instance, in a 1997 study published in the Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, Gregory J. Digirolamo and Douglas L. Hintzman describe how they showed test subjects a series of five images, one at a time. All five were identical except that in each showing of the series either the first image or the fifth image was reversed. The subjects were then asked which image they’d seen more: The one reversed image or the four standard images?
As it turned out, the answer depended on when in the series subjects had seen each version of the image. If the flipped image appeared last, subjects said they saw the standard image more often. If it appeared first, however, subjects said they saw the flipped image more often — even though they had actually seen it only 20 percent of the time.
The first impression, therefore, didn’t only affect how subjects felt about the next four impressions. It also affected their memories of which images they had actually seen.
Headlines Change Our Understanding of Content
For a 2014 study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Ullrich K. H. Ecker and fellow researchers tried to test similar effects of first impressions on memory, and they did so with headlines.
In one experiment, the researchers handed subjects one of two identical articles on burglary rates in Australia. The article noted that burglary rates had declined 10 percent over the previous decade, but had experienced an anomalous 0.2-percent bump in the most recent year. The two articles, however, had diverging headlines: One claimed the number of burglaries was increasing while the other emphasized the long-term downward trend in burglaries.
Readers were asked to read the article, then take a pop quiz on its contents. In each case, the headline affected the details readers remembered: Those who read the “increasing” headline said burglaries were going up while those who read the “decreasing” headline said burglaries were going down.
Headlines Reaffirm Our Knowledge
Finally, headlines may entrench us further in our own opinions when they support what we already believe — regardless of whether our beliefs are based in fact.
For instance, a 2007 article by John R. Surber and Mark Schroeder in Contemporary Educational Psychology describes how the researchers tested reading speed and comprehension of college students who read a chapter of informative text. Students read each chapter both with and without headings to guide them through the information. About half the students had significant prior knowledge in the text’s content area, and about half did not. After reading, students were asked to take a short recall test.
Surber and Schroeder found that the headings were most helpful for readers who already had high prior content knowledge. The headings appeared to reinforce what the readers already knew. These readers also spent more time reading pages with headings than pages without.
It’s unlikely that clickbait headlines like “You Won’t Believe How Cute These 47 Raccoons Are!” reinforce known or believed information for most readers (raccoon aficionados notwithstanding). Clickbait headlines that promote extreme political or social viewpoints or that repeat conspiracy theories, however, are more likely to reaffirm what adoptees of those views already believe.
Far Right Clickbait Tactics
Because clickbait headlines take advantage of our brain’s neurotransmitter-based curiosity system, they’re a powerful draw for attention, even when we would otherwise not be interested in the content presented.
This has made clickbait a popular tactic among white nationalist, alt-right and far-right groups, who might otherwise struggle to get their ideas in front of a mass audience. Many such groups have leveraged clickbait tactics on social media to spread their ideas, leaving the platforms scrambling to keep up.
What is Truth, Anyway?
One way clickbait grabs attention is by playing fast and loose with the truth. “Clickbait isn’t a spit-shined sales pitch meant to lightly elevate the quality of your genuinely decent goods and services, it’s often a blatant lie designed to disguise the goods’ irreparable shoddiness,” reporter Luke O’Neil writes at Mediaite.
Some clickbait trades on blatantly false headline statements. These headlines often fall into the category of “fake news,” such as a 2017 clickbait headline that read “NPR: 25 Million Votes for Clinton ‘Completely Fake’ — She Lost Popular Vote.” The fake headline was accompanied by a photo of Hillary Clinton.
Why do photos matter? A second experiment by Ecker and colleagues demonstrates that when an article contains a photograph of a person who is also mentioned in the headline, our impression of that person more strongly correlates with the impression the headline seeks to create.
Ecker and colleagues tested this hypothesis by pairing photographs with headlines that mentioned either a criminal culprit or a crime victim. In half the articles, the person mentioned in the headline was also the person in the photo; in the other half, the headline mentioned the criminal while the photo was of the victim, or vice versa.
Subjects read the articles and then rated each photo on factors known to be influenced by first impressions, like attractiveness, trustworthiness and aggression. When the headline named the person in the photo, subjects were more likely to rate “criminals” negatively and “victims” highly, regardless of whether the news story itself were true.
Fake news headlines like “25 Million Votes for Clinton ‘Completely Fake’ — She Lost Popular Vote” are thus more likely to gain traction when paired with photos of the person in the headline. Readers’ impression of Clinton may be soured, even if the headline itself is false or does not accurately represent the contents of the article.
Promoting Ideas That Cannot Be Falsified
At best, clickbait headlines grab attention by making claims that aren’t falsifiable — that is, they cannot be proven true one way or another. Author and reporter David A. Tomar gives the example of a headline that claims “These are the absolute most adorable piglets you’ll ever see.”
“It’s not that you won’t see adorable piglets when you click on the link,” Tomar writes. “It’s that there’s no way of objectively proving that they are the most adorable pigs you will ever see.”
These non-falsifiable claims are popular in right-wing headlines. Breitbart News, for instance, frequently inserts subheadlines like “Leftists Rage at Jokes” (by comedian Ricky Gervais). While surely someone, somewhere has strongly disliked one of Gervais’ jokes, finding that person and verifying their credentials as a “leftist” (by whose definition?) is nearly impossible.
The truth value of clickbait headlines isn’t the point; the interest generated by them is. This feature allows extreme views to grab attention while also, when necessary, fudging the facts.
White nationalists and other extremists have also taken advantage of clickbait’s tendency to make hyperbolic claims, as well as the now-common expectation that the article behind the headline won’t actually live up to the headline itself.
Breitbart headlines, for instance, are designed to provoke and offend. Breitbart “tends to take offensiveness as a virtue,” says George Hawley, a professor and historian of the American right. “There’s a trollish element to it.”
Many online trolls claim they attempt to offend or outrage others merely for amusement. For many far-right media personalities, however, the attempt to offend or outrage with a clickbait-y title is intended to grab interest and draw in readers or viewers.
For instance, an article in The Economist quotes far-right author and speaker Ben Shapiro’s reliance on controversy to command attention: “If I can use the methodologies of gaining eyeballs to get people to look into deeper content, then I’m going to do that,” Shapiro says.
Algorithms Love Audience Engagement
Radical right-wing messages have also gained traction thanks to the algorithms that social media use to drive their own traffic and promote content.
For instance, YouTube struggled for years with the proliferation of extreme content, as Brian Feldman at the New York Intelligencer writes. Employees at YouTube who attempted to report on the growing problem found themselves at odds with the company’s primary goal: increase viewer engagement.
Far-right content drove engagement. Viewers who clicked on one were likely to watch more, driven not only by their own curiosity but also by YouTube’s algorithms, which were designed to suggest more videos that might pique the interest of a particular video’s audience.
At one point, YouTube even sought to encourage further viewing and content generation by creating an algorithm that would reward video creators based on engagement. Videos that got more views, or were viewed for longer, would receive a payout, even if they didn’t run ads.
The project did not, however, account for the troll effect. The algorithm would have paid more for videos that got views based on outrage rather than genuine interest, potentially making YouTube even more fertile ground for far-right messaging.
“If [the algorithm] went into effect … it’s likely that someone like Alex Jones — the Infowars creator and conspiracy theorist with a huge following on the site, before YouTube booted him last August — would have suddenly become one of the highest paid YouTube stars,” Mark Bergen at Bloomberg reports.
The Social Media Echo Chamber
Why does social media presence matter so much? For one thing, we may be more likely to believe headlines we’ve seen more than once.
For a 2018 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, researchers Gordon Pennycook, Tyrone D. Cannon and David G. Rand used actual fake news headlines gleaned from Facebook to test whether readers would respond to the fake claims as if they were accurate.
The researchers found that not only did seeing fake news headlines make readers more likely to believe the headlines, but that seeing such headlines more than once reinforced the belief — and that this effect persisted even when the statements were highly (though not entirely) implausible.
“These observations indicate that although extreme implausibility is a boundary condition of the illusory truth effect, only a small degree of potential plausibility is sufficient for repetition to increase perceived accuracy,” Pennycook, Cannon and Rand write.
Blurring the Lines
Finally, far-right clickbait has been able to worm its way into mainstream discourse by straddling the line between extremism and conversation.
For instance, in April 2019, Vice reporters Joseph Cox and Jason Koebler noted that while Twitter had largely eliminated pro-ISIS content from its site, the social media giant hadn’t done much to eliminate white supremacist content. The reason given: Twitter executives feared that targeting white supremacist content would inadvertently sweep up more mainstream Republican content in the ban, as well.
Twitter VP of Global Communications Brandon Borrman pushed back at this characterization of the company’s policies. And in fact, the task of targeting white supremacist content via algorithm may be a tall order, as The Verge’s Casey Newton explains. While the technology remains in limbo, however, white supremacists continue to find Twitter and other platforms a welcoming ground for their rhetoric.
Fighting Back: How to Avoid Taking the (Click)Bait
It’s not always easy to avoid falling for clickbait, Brooks says. Yet there are methods you can use to keep extreme clickbait content off your own social media feeds. And if you can’t help but react, you can do so in ways that don’t also increase the reach of the content.
Wield the Banhammer
Social media sites have begun cracking down on content that expresses white nationalist or other extreme views. For instance, in April 2019 Facebook announced a ban on white nationalist content after the Christchurch shooter broadcast his actions on Facebook Live, Andrew Hutchinson at Social Media Today reports.
While Facebook’s attempts may help, it’s unlikely that they will prevent every instance of far-right or white nationalist content from floating across your feed. Tools like Facebook and Twitter’s block functions, however, allow individual users to cut certain sources out of their feeds entirely.
Twitter also offers two features to help fine-tune your feed:
- The Mute function allows you to stop seeing content from a particular user without blocking them entirely.
- The Mute Words feature allows you to prevent tweets that contain certain words or hashtags from appearing in your feed.
While it’s not perfect — you can’t mute words contained in someone’s Twitter handle or username, for instance — the Mute Words function does filter out most tweets that contain a muted word or phrase. Muting can also be limited by time period or set to last indefinitely.
Screenshot, Don’t Share
If you simply cannot resist snarking back at a right-wing, white nationalist or otherwise extremist clickbait headline, take a screenshot of the original to post to your own social media account rather than sharing the link.
Screenshots help reduce the spread of the original content. Your followers can see what you’re responding to, but they won’t be giving traffic to the publisher unless they search out the original article themselves. They also prevent your take on the original content from being interpreted as engagement by search engines, which cannot tell the difference between a social media share of approval and one of criticism.
By thinking about how search engines and social media sites interpret your reaction to clickbait, you can circumvent the system by which white nationalist and other extreme viewpoints circulate. You can also reduce the amount of extremist clickbait on your own feeds, thus protecting your own peace of mind.
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