Fakebook: hoax news and clickbait on social media

Social media has led to a rise in clickbait articles. (Source: Jason Howie via flickr)

By G Gavin Collins

In the wake of perhaps the greatest upset in American political history, Facebook’s problem with fake news stories reaching its now trending list has caught the ire of those still seeking to put the blame for Trump’s victory on a force powerful enough to deceive roughly half of the American electorate.

Although hoax news stories on Facebook about the ‘Clinton crime family’ likely did not swing the election in Trump’s favour, the fears of many observers concerned with the dwindling importance of truth in media are not unfounded.

Internet-based ‘new media’, on social media and elsewhere, uses the business model of per click advertising. This incentivizes media companies to write articles that generate the greatest number of clicks. The term ‘clickbait’ has arisen to describe the recent phenomenon of large numbers of sensationalist and misleading headlines designed to generate page views, regardless of the cost to journalistic integrity. The recent Facebook hoax news stories are simply the logical conclusion to a business model which is fundamentally incompatible with serious journalism.

Business models built on sensationalism and advertising are far more effective online than in print publications, because to view the content online, the reader must only connect to the offered link, however briefly. It would be like the publisher of the sort of print magazine displayed in grocery store checkout aisles earning advertising money based on the number of askance glances each issue received – in other words, quite effective indeed.

Print media has found itself unable to keep up with this new click-based business model, and readers are now swapping traditional print media for internet news. According to the New York Times, 44 per cent of Americans now get their news from Facebook.

In response, print media has begun adopting the tactics of online media companies. Clickbait headlines are now used to advertise articles on Facebook and other social media sites. Newspapers and magazines, such as the Economist and the Financial Times, tend to advertise on social media their most trending articles. These are often controversial opinion pieces, or news dealing with a salacious topic.

Although print media has maintained a great deal of serious reportage, this is often not the content which is advertised online. If one does not have an online subscription to traditional media and uses the internet as a primary source of news, one will likely have a good understanding of developments in pop culture, but little else.

Another important issue in online media is the rise of opinion-based journalism. Various sites now simultaneously report the news, while catering to a particular set of political views. If one is on the left, there is the Huffington Post, Slate, Vice, or Vox, while conservatives tend to flock to the Drudge Report or Breitbart. This latter website, Breitbart, was instrumental in organising grassroots support for Donald Trump when he first began his campaign. A shameless pro-Trump editorial policy has now landed the editor, Stephen Bannon, in Trump’s White House as Chief Strategist. The power and influence of this new partisan media must not be underestimated.

The result of this sort of content on the online media landscape has been the gradual eradication of almost all serious and in-depth analysis. Complex issues now receive the same treatment as celebrity gossip, or are given a divisive partisan spin, which precludes the sort of discussion required for disparate groups to find common ground.

Sadly, it does not look like this trend will be reversing anytime soon. Alternative media sites, such as Vice News and Buzfeed, which CNN’s President Jeff Zucker has accurately labelled, ‘native advertising shops’, are more popular than even before. And make no mistake, it is the average internet user who has driven this media revolution.

Indeed, if there is any truth to be learned from online alternative media, it is that people like to be told what to think.

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