How Clickbait News Headlines Create Controversy Out Of Thin Air

If you’ve spent more than six seconds on the internet in the last four years, you might have noticed that a lot of people on there are angry. We’re constantly fighting and arguing everywhere from Facebook to Twitter to comment sections to photo captions of babies on Instagram. But why does it seem like it’s so much worse now than ever before? It’s not JUST because of the internet. Why does it seem like the entire world is constantly outraged and attacking each other?

The answer is money.

Now let me preface this by saying that I’m not an anti-PC goblin who wants to be able to tweet racial slurs at children with no repercussions. There are times when internet outrage is a viable and necessary tool that legitimately gets results. It’s part of our culture and it’s certainly not going anywhere. What I’m talking about is the faux controversy. The stories that cause your eyes to roll back so far in your head you look like The Undertaker pinning an opponent after a tombstone pile driver.

Let’s make up something that isn’t really a big deal and I’ll show you how it works. How about an interview where Gwen Stefani says she doesn’t like orange juice. Doesn’t seem like a big deal, right? That’s because you’re not working at a website where your job is to get people to click on your articles.

So now what you do is dig into Twitter and find a couple of random accounts with nine followers that don’t like Gwen Stefani. If they happened to tweet about their disdain after the interview, just assume it’s about the orange juice thing. If you’re lucky you can find a couple of people who tweeted about how they can’t believe Gwen Stefani doesn’t like orange juice. Now you embed those tweets into an article.

You can’t title it something honest like, “Hey, a few random people got upset that Gwen Stefani doesn’t drink orange juice, haha isn’t that stupid?” You have to give it the feel of something scandalous. Something that makes us think it’s going to make us mad. Like this: “The Internet Is Outraged Over Gwen Stefani’s Insensitive Comments.”

It’s insensitive to the people who grow oranges and make orange juice because, well, what if because of Gwen Stefani, her fans decide they don’t like orange juice either? She’s single-handedly destroying the orange juice industry and putting thousands of hard-working citizens out of work!

clickbait news headlines, clickbait controversy, clickbait outrage
If you think that’s completely stupid, that’s good because that’s what you’re supposed to think. A small percentage of people are going to actually care about this and share it honestly, but the rest are people sharing it with a caption like, “Can you believe how stupid people are to get upset about something like this?” Then you’re going to send it to a dozen friends who also can’t believe how dumb it is. Now this is where the real garbage people step in.

They see this story trending and share it with a real trash caption like, “Typical woman, always complaining!” or “Good for Gwen Stefani! Mexicans are the only ones picking oranges and we need to get rid of them anyway!” Now that’s something that’s actually offensive and will legitimately get people upset. So this leads to arguing in the comments section. The author knows that the more heated the comment debate gets, the more you’ll keep refreshing the page and that means more and more traffic.

So now you don’t just have a sensationalized story about Gwen Stefani not liking orange juice. Now you’ve started huge arguments about racism and sexism (and inevitably an argument about Obama being a Muslim terrorist because they all lead to arguments about Obama being a terrorist) and that leads to even more articles because you can write up the terrible responses the original article had gotten. As long as they can keep you angry, you’ll keep clicking.

The news has been doing the same thing for years. You know that joke where one of the anchors says something absurd like, “Is something in your kitchen trying to kill your baby? Tune in at 11 to find out.” It’s graduated way beyond that. They now have 24 hours to fill, as well as their websites, and they need viewers for all of those. So what do they do? They go with over-the-top headlines and bring in guests that’ll make outlandish statements. Because if you have one person that claims something, no matter how ignorant and unrealistic it is, you can run with it.

Let’s say CNN brings in an “author” who wrote an 18-page e-book in 2013 about pod people that can swallow a watermelon whole. He says something idiotic in passing like, “Even Obama could be a pod person. We don’t know.” Now the news can run segments called “Obama a pod person? One expert seems to think so.” And, of course, that leads to more articles, because that video is definitely getting put online, and more arguing, and ultimately more clicks.

So how do you stop it? The best thing to do is simply not click on the articles. Obviously many others are going to keep doing it, so do what you can to avoid those comment section arguments, no matter how tempting they may be. Even if you’re doing it on Facebook and not on the actual article, it’s keeping the link at the top of everyone’s feed by constantly interacting with it. If you want to post a status and argue about something, have at it, but if you want websites to stop constantly trying to enrage us, then stop encouraging them. Remember that Treehouse of Horrors episode of “The Simpsons” where the ads come to life? Lisa helps everyone defeat them by singing, “Just don’t look. Just don’t look.” Wise words that still certainly apply today.