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Clickbait v Political Impact: Alternative Journalism as Social Media Becomes the New News Source


“New media believes the consumer is always right. New media gives people what they want,” said an expert in viral content, Emerson Spartz.

Particularly in first world countries, Facebook and Twitter are fast becoming the main places where people come across their news – ahead of television and news sites. “Success” is becoming about the number of reads, shares, likes, upvotes, and re-tweets – making it easy to lose sight of what really defines the usefulness of an article: political impact.

The path to viral content is partly luck, and partly understanding that people often share articles as a placard to declare their identity. Positive stories and emotions do well, Spartz points out – but this often leads to decontextualized stories about random individual acts dominating our information (our understanding of the current world) over articles that decode the empire ways of the US, the global persecution of refugees, the systematic starvation of millions, the trade agreements that will ruin rivers, and so on. And by ‘do well’ – Spartz meant for advertising revenue due to clicks. His “new media”, also known as clickbait, is about technological algorithms and profits, not journalism.

What is clickbait?

Clickbait is internet content aimed at generating advertising revenue at the expense of accuracy. It tends to be shallow, and relies on emotional hyperbole and social media networks. Its rubbish for profit, the internet version of tabloids – ads pretending to be articles, and exploitation of curiosity, women, selfishness, and more in order to get readers. While good journalism is about articles that need to be written, that have something important to say, clickbait is content that is done just for the sake of it.

Here’s a recent example of a clickbait headline: “4 Asian High School Students Stand Up to Their White Classmates in an Epic Yearbook Stunt”. The article is about four students with the last name of Nguyen, who note in their yearbook that they aren’t related. The white classmates in the headline are not mentioned in the article, the racism isn’t described, explained, or contextualized, and the “stunt” was far from “epic”.

Clickbait is so devoid of real content, there are a number of clickbait headline generators online. At one, I entered the word ‘feet’ and the generator came up with 25 possible headlines, starting with; “the rise of feet and how to make it stop”, “why you should forget everything you learned about feet”, and “why feet is/are destroying america” (the site’s lower case, not mine).

What impact does clickbait have?

Like soap operas, this sort of content is based on quick and easy satisfaction and distraction. It is a time-waster, lowers people’s critical thinking skills, and changes their expectations. Bombarded with this sort of content, people want shorter and easily digestible articles and videos, to have to think less, and they want more interesting and visually engaging content.

With readers coming across their news through social media, and with people sometimes receiving hundreds of Tweets an hour, and a lot of links via Facebook and Reddit, content is competitive. Alternative media is competing with sensationalized headlines, Buzzfeed videos, navel gazing quizes about what movie character a reader most resembles, and more. It is competing for people’s attention on an uneven playing field, on the scale of posters for rallies competing with giant billboards.

The positive side of the story is that in some ways, this competition isn’t real. Many readers know the difference between advertising and real journalism, and the difference between choosing content in order to relax a bit, and choosing real news, and will be faithful to the news and analysis sites that treat them with respect. There is also a point where hyperbole is used so much that it loses its meaning and impact – becoming crass and looked down on. But the social media era sets journalists a useful challenge: to be interesting and creative, and to understand the importance of our articles and highlight that well.

Dynamic headlines are good – so long as no political integrity is sacrificed. However, clickbait whose only aim is to get reads, will not, and never has changed the world – if revenue isn’t involved, it is about satisfying egos and point scoring.

In trying to counter private media ideology and disinformation, reaching as large an audience as possible is obviously important. But in good pro-people journalism, reads and shares are a means, not an end.

Where the rich few are heard loud and clear in the media and the rest of us are invisible, the role of good journalism is paramount. To write for alternative media is to have an opportunity to be heard, to wield the truth as a sword to fight injustice with -and it should be valued.

How do we wage this fight well? How do we avoid the temptation to become reads crazy, but also make sure our stuff is read? Counting likes and shares is easy, but how do we gauge the political impact of our articles and ensure their quality?

These ten questions should help:

1) Whose power does the article aid? What sort of people (class, gender, colonized or colonizer etc) would be empowered by the article? How?

2) Does the article cover issues and conflicts that are sidelined by the mainstream media or challenge oppressive mainstream ideas?

3) Does the article promote critical thought (analysis, curiosity, doubt, wonder)? Is it creative? Original? Boring isn’t okay. The world is too crazy, horrible, and beautiful for that.

4) If the article is news, does it help the reader understand the situation better, or does it confuse and simplify things, turning scores of people killed in a bomb blast into the mere inhuman victims of some abstract chess game?

5) When the article is combined with the media’s overall package of articles for the day, or week, what message does that send? For example, a site with 10 articles on terrorism attacks in Paris but only one on Nigeria reinforces a message that first world lives are worth more.

6) Does it matter who wrote the article? Sometimes it may not,but in the midst of gross inequalities, it usually does. Alternative media is meant to democratize global and local discussions, and that means hearing from (as authors, commentators, and quoted experts) the third world, activists, all genders and sexualities, races and ages, from indigenous people, working class people, those who have been excluded from academia, and more.

7) Does it provide historical, economic, and social context – where relevant?

8) What are the main sources of information, and what are the interests of those sources? For example, are we hearing from people on the ground, or from parachute and hotel journalists who don’t understand the nuances of the situation? Is the source a US funded “human rights organization” with ulterior motives, or a business, or an organization with a reputation for integrity?

9) Where appropriate, is there self-criticism? Does the article recognize the complexity of the subject, the nuances, and problems? It is searingly honest?

10) Does the story make the news, politics, history etc abstract, as though those things have no impact on our lives,and we aren’t protagonists in them? Try not to do that, the article will also likely get more reads if you don’t 🙂

What else would you add? What do you think?


Tamara Pearson is a long time journalist based in Latin America, and author of The Butterfly Prison. Her writings can be found at her blog.

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