media update’s Aisling McCarthy looks what clickbait is, and why it works.

So what is clickbait?

Just as the name suggests, clickbait is sensationalist content that is designed to tempt users into clicking on it – like those cringeworthy articles you can’t help but open.

I mean, who doesn’t want to know what this woman looks like with 100 layers of foundation on?

(Spoiler alert: She looks exactly the same as she does in the picture …)

And who can resist clicking here to see what happens next:

THE PITBULL EATS THE BABY! Just kidding, he licks it in the face.

This is how clickbait gets you – with ridiculous misleading headlines designed to make you think the content is one thing, when in reality, it’s another.

These articles are generally produced by websites that are solely looking to get page views in order to generate advertising revenue. However, these sites are often where viral fake news stories spring from, despite the fact that they lack quality, depth or accuracy.

So what does clickbait have to do with fake news?

You might be wondering, ‘Who cares if there are sensationalist articles out there?’. Well, we’re glad you asked. Everyone should care ... because clickbait headlines are designed to be shareable. And this can lead to fake news being spread.

Even more than just being spread, false information can be believed. The danger then lies in with the realities that stem from the damage of false beliefs!

Take, for example, a clickbait article that suggests a prominent political figure has done something illegal. When people see the article online, either they will read the content or simply share it without reading further. This can spread across social media, with many people being duped into believing it’s true.

Whether or not the story is real, the impression of the story can have real effects on the world. If this story surfaced shortly before elections, it could affect the political figure’s chances of winning.

The damage done to a person or brand’s reputation can be irreversible, even if the accusations turn out to be false. Although people are getting more adept at spotting clickbait and fake news, sensationalist content is still found trolling the Internet. Why is that?

Why does clickbait work?

Clickbait is designed to maximise reader clicks, engagement and shares. But wait, isn’t all content meant to do that? Well, yes. But clickbait is different because it uses emotional hooks and plays on our human traits to get us to open the content.

Generally, clickbait content (and fake news) gets shared further than other content because it inspires engagement, and often, commentary.

So let’s take a look at the reasons why clickbait actually works:

1. Everyone has FOMO

In the age of social media, the fear of missing out (FOMO) underpins virtually every successful social network and app.

When you open a social app and see a ‘like’ or comment on your post, you get a rush of dopamine (the pleasure hormone). And often, this can lead people into a pattern of repeatedly checking their social feeds to get the occasional dopamine reward.

The underlying thought process is that something good might be happening somewhere (and like Aerosmith, you don’t wanna miss a thing).

Clickbait goes a step further than social media in using FOMO though – if you don’t click, you will literally miss out.

“Clickbait summons the power of FOMO in miniature by leveraging affective forecasting, [or] our sense of how we will feel in the future,” writes Rob Steffens in an article for Bluleadz.

“The thought of missing out is most likely to lead to a forecast of regret. People will then take action to make sure they avoid that unpleasant future.”

2. Emotional headlines attract attention

Articles that have strong, emotional headlines attract the attention of readers, and clickbait plays on this.

Clickbait articles play on reader’s emotions. For example:
  • Affirmation: ‘Why building credit card debt might actually save you money in the long run’
  • Shock: ‘Mexican woman pregnant with twins – at the age of 67!’
  • Desire: ‘Want more money? Make R50 000 a month with this simple trick’
  • Anger: ‘Here’s the real reason the government takes 40% of your salary’

3. People are curious by nature

Ever heard the saying ‘curiosity killed the cat’?

This is precisely why clickbait works. Humans are, by nature, curious creatures. We just can’t help ourselves.

The trick to great clickbait is to send out a really good hook –- just like catching fish. Once you’ve got the visitor onto your site, it doesn’t really matter what they read. It’s the click-through traffic stats that count.

Most clickbait has the same characteristics in common:
  • Lists (generally under 10 points)
  • Celebrities
  • Money and health topics
  • Unbelievable claims
Clickbait works because it preys on the very things that interest most people while still appealing to their need to save time and be quick.

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Clickbait and fake news go hand in hand, but there is a way to fight it. Find out how in our article, How to avoid circular reporting and spreading fake news.