Let’s be honest, we’ve all done it. Clicked on that story about a cute animal, eye-watering injury or badly ageing celebrity.
While clickbait might be a light-hearted way of frittering away a few minutes online, there’s a darker, much more manipulative world of ‘post-truth’ news out there that’s running rings around mainstream sources, eroding trust, and skewing many people’s world view.
‘Post-truth’ was chosen as 2016’s Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries. It’s described as, “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”. Its popularity has been fuelled in large part by the EU referendum and the US election.
But how exactly did it help Trump triumph over the Democrats’ supposedly unbeatable ‘blue wall ‘of door-knocking volunteers and wall-to-wall TV ads?
Welcome to the town of Veles in Macedonia (pop: 45,000). Locals there have quickly learnt that clicks mean advertising revenue, and that means publishing attention-grabbing (and blatantly untrue) stories that get shared. So residents have launched at least 140 US politics websites with legitimate-sounding names such as WorldPoliticus.com and USADailyPolitics.com.
The sites openly admit their stories aren’t real. “Yes, the info in the blogs is bad, false, and misleading but if it gets the people to click on it and engage, then use it,” says one. They appealed to Trump’s fanbase by playing into their worst fears. They apparently tried the same with stories for Bernie Sanders supporters but it didn’t work.
The same is happening all over the world, including in the US itself: LibertyWritersNews.com is run from the front room of a rented house in California by two former waiters. They make up stories all day with headlines such as “LOOK at Sick Thing Obama Just Did” and “Hillary’s Illegal Email Just KILLED Its First American Spy”. In August the site was getting 700,000 visitors every day, and doubling every month; it gained 300,000 Facebook followers in October alone, making them a small fortune in ad revenue. One says, “There’s not a ton of thought put into it, other than it gets a click… You have to trick people into reading the news.”
Facebook, the social network with 1.79 billion active members worldwide, is what makes all of this possible. While it makes efforts to filter what it regards as spam postings and periodically adjusts its algorithms, it has a near-impossible task to vet and verify what’s ‘true’ or not in amongst a torrent of fake content.
Of course, others aren’t immune from “post-truth” stories: many newspapers use more sensationalist headlines on website stories than the print versions to attract clicks. Referendum campaigners claimed Turkey was joining the EU and there was nothing you can do about it. All have successfully hogged the headlines and airwaves from the Daily Telegraph to the Today programme.
As Mark Twain famously said, “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is still putting on its shoes”. And as competition grows, the need to be extreme to grab attention will only get worse.
The solution is a simple one: think before you click. Question what you see. When we’re prepared to pay again for better news, we will get better news.
By the way, there is one deliberately fake fact in this blog. But then you spotted that didn’t you?