Aurora Magazine

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The clickbait problem

Published in Nov-Dec 2016
In a system that rewards websites that can boast of higher traffic, isn’t clickbait expected?

It’s fashionable (and often useful to the person making the remark) to belittle a piece of writing by calling it clickbait. The term ‘clickbait’, after all, is intended to signify some sort of deception. In this construction, an article that is clickbait features an intriguing headline that compels you to ‘click’ on the link in question only to find that what you are reading falls short of what is promised – or, in some cases, is entirely inaccurate.

A few weeks ago an article published on an obscure website titled ‘Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 Million BC- 2016)’ made the rounds on the internet, inciting much hysteria.

Readers were led to believe that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was ‘dead’, in that most of the coral that comprises the reef had been destroyed by humanity. The headline is misleading, as is most of the information in the piece. Respected news outlets were quick to refute the report, stating that while the Great Barrier Reef is in fact under threat, it is nowhere close to being ‘dead.’ But it didn’t matter – by this time the website (Outside Online) that published the original story had no doubt racked up thousands of views.

This story above exemplifies clickbait and proves that the quest for ‘clickability’ can lead both the news source and reader astray.

However, while the Great Barrier Reef’s ‘obituary’ is truly clickbait (with all its negative connotations), we also have to admit that far too many news outlets are accused by competitors of being ‘clickbait-y’ as a means to discredit them. A truly engaging headline that leads to a competent story will often be dismissed as clickbait by a rival news source that wasn’t witty enough to think of it. So I suppose the question is: where does canny editorial judgement end and pure clickbait sly begin?

The fact is this: with more and more people consuming news through their social media feeds, and with a growing selection of online magazines for these readers to choose from, websites have to be extremely creative to attract eyeballs. To add to this, hard news and intelligent commentary jockey for attention with the likes of Fawad Khan’s latest photoshoot or what Sunny Leone ate for breakfast, and in an era where our attention spans are as brief as a Twitter bio, the average reader seems to favour short, snappy snippets of info over thick paragraphs of text.


We need to keep in mind that we are all simultaneously the bait and the catch. At any given click we are someone’s dupe. Our carefully constructed online personas are intended to be hooks for people who think like us.


For journalists and people in the media, circumventing this obstacle might mean doing stories that are unique and truly one-off, but most of the time it means presenting stories that are not unique in ways no one else has thought of, either through interesting headlines or interactive elements.

Doing this requires a precise understanding of reader psychology (one that is usually innate, and cannot be acquired only through dependence on analytics). It isn’t enough for a modern editor to ask: have I got a great story on my hands or not? He/she has to follow up with the question: how can

I present this great story in a way that readers will click on my site instead of on a picture of Kim Kardashian?

It’s not all gloom and doom. While sites that present a lot of clickbait do well – like Daily Mail, for example – this new situation has forced legacy brands to think outside the box. In Pakistan, Dawn.com, for example, has used listicles to impart hard news (“Cyber crime bill passed by NA: 13 reasons why Pakistanis should be worried”). If the object here is to increase audience awareness of new legislation, then using a headline that some may deem ‘clickbaity’ is, I think, clever.

These days, The New York Times features quizzes and The Guardian features highly clickable first-person stories. Sites like BuzzFeed that founded themselves on the viral potential of cat videos have taken up serious journalism and often scoop the competition. The line between what is frivolous and what has intellectual heft has blurred.

In this scenario, it’s easy to throw the word ‘clickbait’ around and hope it will stick to something. Which is why it has become all the more imperative to use the word with caution.

As an editor, to guard against accusations of clickbait, my own rules are as follows: Don’t overstate the facts or implications of a story in a headline. Don’t, under any circumstances, lie about the content. (I mean, this piece that you are reading now – if I had titled it: ‘The truth about clickbait: REVEALED’ – I suppose you could call it clickbait and your frustration would be justified). Focus on building a loyal audience rather than accumulating clicks from random sources. Unfortunately, this is not a formula budding news sites can afford to follow for long, unless they are backed up by significant funding.

And so, the clickbait problem – why it exists, why websites continue to indulge – is structural. In a system that rewards those websites that can boast of higher traffic, isn’t clickbait expected?

The good news is that websites are diversifying their sources of income by entering into partnership agreements with advertisers, by producing paid content and more. This takes some of the pressure off the single story, the single click. But it also brings with it a host of other ethical conundrums that purists will insist is the end of journalism as we know it.

In the end, I suppose we need to keep in mind that we are all simultaneously the bait and the catch. At any given click we are someone’s dupe. Our carefully constructed online personas are intended to be hooks for people who think like us. Navigating the online space these days, as a consumer or as an editor, means rubbing up against all kinds of clickability.

Moralising has never been more fraught with complications.

Hamna Zubair is Culture Editor, Dawn.com