Click Bait Websites and the Age of Misinformation

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, you’ve likely come across an article from a website like Buzzfeed, Thought Catalog, Elite Daily, Upworthy, Diply, or another similar website. These sites are all similar in their target market (Millennials), and their style of content is all the same. Catchy titles rich with hyperbole, easily digestible content, lists, short word counts, and plenty of pretty pictures. This new wave of content has taken hold with our generation because when we are browsing on a screen, our attention spans are shorter; this has been demonstrated in numerous neuroscience studies, so it makes sense that these websites take advantage of that. Looking at a screen simply affects your brain and eyes differently, and your mind becomes tired faster.

The Click Bait Model

News and other content online used to be written by educated, self-respecting journalists employed by various publications who had a history of excellent research and integrity. Enter all of the aforementioned “click bait” websites. A quick browse of their home pages will bring a few things to light:

1) There is a constant stream of content being produced

2) A lot of it was lifted from other websites

3) 90% of the contents are just rehashed thoughts or Sparks Notes of current events

4) A lot of “content” is just a paragraph description of a video on YouTube

5) Almost all of the content is opinion-based with little-to-no research done to back up the author’s points.

6) There are a lot of lists (irony intended)

The virality of this style of content can’t be denied; it’s a simple question of giving the people what they want. Hats off to the creators of click bait websites for recognizing this trend and pouncing on it.

The problem with these websites is that they are jamming content down our throats akin to what our diets used to be back in the 90’s and early 2000’s: full of processed junk food that was slowly killing us. Today, consumer tastes have changed, and now we are demanding greater access to healthier food free of preservatives. We became more conscious of what we were eating thanks to medical research, and our diets as a whole have slowly started improving, although obesity is still an epidemic in North America. The click bait websites of today are the junk food of content, and I believe that a similar evolution will happen with regards to our appetite for quality content as we realize the lack of value and substance these websites are providing us with.

I would also argue that the business model that these websites operate under is not sustainable. The entire reason for existence of these websites is not to educate, foster debate, or evoke thought; it’s to sell advertising space through demonstrated traffic. The problem with these websites is that to sell an ad, you need a target market. If your website is a fustercluck of content with no clear direction or purpose, you cannot accurately define your audience and promise directed ads without the help of a tech giant like Google or Facebook. Compare that to a website like Cosmopolitan: equally as crappy content, but a much more streamlined audience. They have a much easier time securing advertising revenue because companies know exactly who is reading the content.

The Age of Misinformation

Click bait websites are notorious for spreading misinformation and creating controversy in the name of generating hits. Poor research and the demand for a constant stream of content is what creates a lot of the misinformation conveyed in many articles found on click bait sites.

For example, let’s say there’s an article that talks about how intelligent people generally stay up much later at night. Because the vast majority of the audience doesn’t understand that correlation does not equal causation, legions of people will start to think that because they stay up late, they must be intelligent. No one likes to think of themselves as stupid, so naturally this situation results in a lot of unintelligent people thinking that their habits are contributing to something they do not in fact possess; in essence, it’s a mild placebo effect.

The problem with click bait websites’ approach to writing is rooted in their business model. Most of their staff writers are paid next to nothing or contribute volunteer pieces simply for the exposure. The lack of credibility, experience, and talent of most of their staff warrants a lower wage, but the amount of people reading this shoddy journalism versus quality work displayed in major news publications is alarming. As Millennials, and every generation before us, a time will come when we have to run the world, and if we’re getting most of our “information” from our peers, we are breaking the traditional cycle of imparted wisdom. Many of these writers’ opinions are no more educated or well thought out than our own, but because it is packaged up on a flashy website, many Millennials are taking these words as gospel.

Perhaps if the authors had credibility, life experience, and some sort of professional training in the subjects that they are writing about, click bait websites might actually be responsible for some good in the world. But the reality is that these websites keep churning out junk food, and we keep feeding on it.

Eventually, a paradigm shift needs to happen, and quality content or quantitative content needs to reign supreme again. Part of the problem is the severely budget cuts many publications have undergone due to a shift in industry standards and the availability of information, but much of it stems from our changing cultural attitude to the currency of information. We want things immediately, and we will take short cuts in order to get there, often ignoring key details and facts. We neglect to check our sources and often believe exactly what someone with little knowledge or credibility on the subject says.

Case Study: Analysis of a Typical Click Bait Article

Article: “Why Women Need to Start Asking Men Out…Because Men Have no Balls.” – published on Elite Daily on September 9th, 2014. 

I’m going to finish this article with an analysis of a typical click bait article. This one surfaced a few days ago, and rightfully so generated a lot of controversy and traffic. 

Right from the title, this article aims to stir the pot. The title is a direct shot to the male ego, and nothing gets under a guy’s skin like questioning his manhood. For male readers, they’re likely to click on it because it angers them, and they want to read what the article is about so they can refute it internally or externally (just read the comments to see what I’m referring to). For female readers, the article can be quite polarizing. On one hand, the title is quite uplifting for the average female reader: it is empowering, it questions gender roles, indeed drawing from the very “hot” things with regards to gender-focused journalism of today. One the other hand, the title is quite sexist, and that might offend some female readers, which also helps generate traffic to the article.

Now let’s break down the article itself.

The first two paragraphs are rich with a sense of female entitlement. Essentially, the author equates that lack of proper dates that women are being taken on to the fact that men don’t know how to treat a women “properly”. But what is proper in terms of gender interactions? The metrics the author is using were only in place for a few generations previous. “Dating” has only been around for about a century, and before that, things were quite different. Women were married off as possessions in bartering deals between noblemen and their sons; kingdoms were united with the trade of a female body. Instances of violence against women were many times higher in the past than they are today.

Even the concept of chivalry is one of the most misused frameworks for male behaviour today. If you actually bothered to look up what chivalry actually means, you may be surprised: it was a code of conduct used by knights during medieval times. One of the stipulations of it was to treat noblewomen well, but chivalry is more heavily based in the codes of combat and behaviour towards one’s enemies. Chivalry basically suggests that you should show no mercy, crush your enemies, respect the church, and be nice to rich girls. Chivalry has been adopted as a modern framework for male behaviour in the past century, but it ignores the incredible progress that has been made with regards to the role of women in society and the push for equality that has been made. These two conflicting frameworks are what is causing the rift the author is lamenting in her article.

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The author’s next section describes how men are afraid of approaching women. Social anxiety has been present as long as humans have been alive, and as our brains evolved, so did our ability to doubt, to fear, and to analyze short-term and long-term consequences of a social miscue. Both men and women are affected by an inability to approach a complete stranger in a public place, so this is not simply a male centric problem.

The author also makes a point about TV “lying” to women about who men are as people. Television apparently portrays all men as dominant, romantic, infallible beings who are perfect constructs of the male ideal. If you examine the top 5 sitcoms on TV right now, you get the following list:

1. The Big Bang Theory

2. Modern Family

3. Community

4. New Girl

5. The Simpsons

The reason I chose sitcoms is because they are focused around day-to-day situations and interpersonal interactions. A list of the top 20 shows on TV is littered with NFL programs, reality TV/contestant-based shows, and crime dramas, which are not representative of average relationship constructs.

Look at the male protagonists in each series. The Big Bang Theory is the single most popular program on TV today, and it revolves around a group of 4 male characters whose appeal is rooted in their awkwardness around females and every day situations. Modern Family is a great show, but there is not a Don Draper or Harvey Specter to be found among the male characters. Community is a grab bag of characters, but aside from Jeff (portrayed by Joel McHale), there is no dominant male character to be found. New Girl isn’t focused on a male character, but the supporting cast are all bumbling idiots. Ditto for the appeal of Homer Simpson.

If you go back in time and think of the most popular sitcoms of the past decade, all the male characters who were the head of a family were portrayed as sweet, loveable characters who also happened to be oafish. Comedy is often based around self-depreciation, so it simply isn’t logical to state that TV has portrayed male characters as the author describes them when the inverse is actually true. Of course there are powerful male characters on TV, but those shows aren’t as popular. So if anything, TV is telling women that men are loveable idiots who get lots of laughs and still get the girl in the end, which is the opposite of what the author stated. 

The next paragraph places the blame on the single most important woman in a man’s life: his mother. She begins by making a sweeping generalization about how mothers babied their sons into class A narcissists, but then retreats on her point and states that only a few mothers didn’t teach their sons how to “properly” court a woman. This paragraph really has no substance, because there is nothing aside from weak anecdotal evidence backing up her point.

The fact is, more children are growing up in single parent households today than 30 years prior, so this has indeed had an effect on how boys are raised. Simply put, a mother can do many things, but be a father she cannot. The reason why men are supposedly lacking courage and the knowledge on how to properly court a woman isn’t because their mothers taught them the wrong way, but because an increasing number of guys grew up without the regular presence of their father to model their behaviour after.

The overarching issue with this article that is prevalent within the mother shaming paragraph is the “proper” way to court a woman. What Elite Daily’s staff often do when framing their argument around the decline of the dating scene is blame the “hookup culture” and lack of quality dates that people are going on nowadays. What their writing staff fail to recognize is that we are basing our “proper” dating constructs on outdated metrics and advice from our parents. A lot has changed in 30 years, and the way that a lot of couples interact has also changed.

For starters, more women than men are in university now. Indisputable fact. What this also equates to is a lot more women are pursuing successful careers than in the past. Awesome. What this also means is that finding time to get together for an actual date is becoming increasingly difficult as now both, not just one, of the people in a couple are working hard towards a successful career, and that puts limits on time. It also means that because of both genders pursuing careers instead of predominantly one in years past, both parties have a steady source of income. This changes the expectation for a lot of the financial responsibility with regards to dating.

In the past, men picked up the cheque because they made more money. As well they should; it’s only fair. Today, women make virtually the same salaries as men do, so there is no wage disparity between the average couple. If that last sentence set off an alarm bell about wage inequality, stop. There is no such thing – that 77 cents on the dollar statistic used by President Obama and countless other agencies has been proven as shaky at best. If you really want to read into it, click here. Even the Huffington Post, a very pro-feminist publication source, has an article that disputes it.

So with wages being similar and time, the most valuable commodity we have, being limited to couples, “proper” dating seems fairly difficult. Factor in that stable careers are becoming increasingly rare, and higher education is being pursued by more and more people, and you now have to factor in relocation into the equation of difficult dating.

Social media has also made dating increasingly difficult. Facebook and Instagram provide constant snapshots of couple’s lives together, but they also provide individuals with access to visual stimulation from external parties. Communication is easier than ever, and the prospect of meeting and having casual, short-lived relationships with multiple partners is increasingly appealing to the people in the Millennial generation. Add in dating apps like Tinder, Plenty of Fish, or OkCupid, and you have access to hundreds, if not thousands of potential partners literally at your fingertips. This never existed in the past, so why are we basing our metrics for “proper” dating in a time when the basis for these metrics no longer exists?

This ties into the author’s next paragraph: they think there’s always someone better. This goes for both genders, as not just men have access to Facebook, Instagram, Tinder and the like: we all do. Both genders are equally as guilty of potential social media infidelity. One gender is not more likely to cheat than the other. Studies have been published that suggest men cheat more, but just as many are published that suggest the opposite is true.

The author’s final paragraph that talks about men not growing up as quickly as women do is laughable at best. It draws on a “study” by Nickleodeon UK that was performed in anticipation of one of their new programs that is all about a childish bachelor who assumes legal guardianship over a very mature and intelligent 12 year old boy. Aside from the obvious alarm signals about the legitimacy of a study conducted by a TV network, the results of the study conveniently align with the theme of the show.

How the study went about determining what constituted being “grown up” was related to behaviours very stereotypical of males, but the sheer amateur nature of the study doesn’t really warrant much a response. If you’re supporting your points with “studies” done by TV networks, you really have no business being a writer, even if it’s for a click bait website.

To wrap-up, I believe that there is a good amount of data supporting that socially, we have changed in the way we deal and progress with relationships. Our world is not the same as our parents’ was, so we should stop using their dating stories as a social yardstick for our own. Live your life, be who you want to be with, and quit feeling pressured to go out on extravagant dates because its the “proper” thing to do. The point of a relationship isn’t to spend money or adhere to archaic social constructs; it’s to be with someone who challenges you to be better and who you enjoy learning from and spending time with. You cannot achieve happiness without a bit of struggle, and no amount of assumed chivalrous behaviour will achieve that.

What will is adapting to the times and realizing that the dating game has changed. Things are more challenging than ever now, so the key is to be adaptable and open to change, and to also encourage a more equality-centric approach to things, rather than feeling pressured to have storybook romance encouraged by mislead nostalgia. Don’t use money as your relationship currency; use your partner’s and your own personal growth and happiness.

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One thought on “Click Bait Websites and the Age of Misinformation

  1. Pingback: Click Bait Websites and the Age of Misinformation | TinderNews

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