“Clickbait” is content written and posted by advertisers that has as its number-one purpose attracting Internet users to “click” on a link to the advertiser’s website. One of the pithiest and most effective tools used online today is the clickbait headline. Often, those who want to cast doubt on a person or event or shape the public’s response about nearly anything presented in the news can do so by using one of the oldest tools in social manipulation tactics: the rumor. Unfortunately, society is full of folks who often see a headline and investigate the matter no further. So, by posting captions that have false tales in them, an individual or news outlet has the power to circulate a fabricated version of the story—without being guilty of telling an outright lie. After all, often captions state the most sensational line in a story, then the article itself clears up the gossip. But how many people take the time to read the whole thing? It turns out that “most readers spend most of their reading time scanning headlines rather than reading the story,” since we’re so busy these days that we find it hard to dedicate the time to taking in the entire article.[i] Thus, the headline has the power to tell its own, separate saga.
As such, sensationalistic captions—credible or not—are posted in visible areas in hopes of accruing traffic from the curious who will click on a story to learn more. Once the digital traffic has moved to a site, ad revenues are paid to the host site, and few care whether the story is tabloid-worthy or authentic. And, since (as has been stated) most people don’t keep reading past the headlines, clickbait banners are particularly alluring in their sensationalism, since the goal is to incite enough curiosity to prompt the reader to make the “click.” Additionally, by design, headlines aren’t intended to summarize an article’s content. They highlight a shocking or attention-capturing element of the story, bringing it front and center in the hopes that while the busy reader skims past other stories, this one will command attention.[ii]
Pairing the sensationalistic nature of headlines with the busy-ness (and short attention spans) of most adults, we have a breeding ground of misinformation. As Professor Patrick Egan, associate professor of politics and public policy at New York University, put it, “We’re in this kind of Wild West world in social media where it’s very difficult to attribute where sources of ads and other political messages come from.”[iii] Consider the many celebrities’ lives that are on display for the public eye, and how often rumors of pregnancies, divorces, affairs, and other drama make headlines, but are later refuted. Such initial misinformation can be as simple as a title that suggests a compromising photo was taken or a “baby bump” was spotted, and the gossip is launched. Even if the ensuing story puts the proper perspective on the situation and reinstates a truer picture of the situation, readers will probably never get that far. In this way, sensational headlines are allowed with a free hand, with no accountability, as long as the story suggests circumstances rather than facts. Since readers see captions and interpret them as accurate, there is likewise no accountability; it’s simply written off as human error.
Such situations are bad enough when they’re accidental, or when they’re a misinterpretation the subsequent story clears up, but often, they are strategically placed so that the repetition of the message will cause the misinformation to be accepted as documented in the public eye. Fake headlines designed specifically for spreading misinformation is a tactic “as old as time” because it settles into our social and community spheres and permeates the places where we obtain and discuss updates on stories and events.[iv] In other words, these one-liners pop up in our daily lives: “Did you see that so-and-so is pregnant?” “I couldn’t believe [enter celebrity couple’s names here] are getting divorced!” When broadcast on public forums or even news outlets, and it is rarely called out for what it is, it’s simply corrected in the fine print or written off as human error.
When the spread of misinformation occurs as a result of true error or misunderstanding, it can be damaging enough. But there is another angle to consider. The ambiguity in tracing false reporting back to the source fosters a setting wherein a small group of headline-controlling individuals holds great power in spinning the publicly accepted narrative in one direction or the other.
For those looking to control the population’s emotions, purchases, or even votes, all they need to do is send out accounts that make the desired statement and see that they’re never traced back to their source and corrected. (Or, if such wrongs are righted, it only needs to be a quiet fix, one the public doesn’t need to be made aware of, despite that victims’ lives may never be the same.) Once launched, readers will see the headline and later remember it—and declare it to their peers—as fact. Because origins can remain elusive, reporting entities can escape accountability, and the public’s belief on an issue is forever swayed. This tactic is one Joe Biden himself discussed in January of 2021, stating that, to coerce the public to embrace falsehood, “You keep repeating the lie; [and] repeating the lie.”[v] (Of course, in this context, Biden was accusing Donald Trump of using this tactic.)
Part of the headline’s power is wielded by its use of context. For example, before the January 6, 2021, run on the Capitol building in Washington, DC, Trump had said the following before an assembly of his followers regarding his stance on the outcome of the 2020 election, which he contended had been pilfered:
All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical left democrats…[and] the fake news media…we will never give up. We will never concede. …we will stop the steal![vi]
He then discussed how Republicans needed to remain stronger than ever, and said that they would have to “fight like hell”[vii] to maintain electoral honesty in the face of what he perceived to be a bogus election outcome in favor of Democratic Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. In context, many might say that the words sound patriotic and defensive of the American electoral process. However, later the same day when the Capitol was stormed, resulting in five deaths and up to one hundred fifty injuries, headlines popped up all over the world accusing Trump of “inciting violence” against the American governmental building. Naming Trump nearly a traitor to our country, hatred for the man—who was already staunchly disliked by some—spread like wildfire, while others sprang to his defense. (Many conspiracy theorists blamed other sources for the storming of the building, stating that the damage was done by groups other than Trump followers to solidify disdain for him. These, some of whom deserve reflection, are outside the scope of this work.)
Worth noting is that Trump’s words, in context, could have easily seen the word “fight” traded for the term “advocate,” which never would have been construed as inciting violence. The word was used metaphorically, and in conjunction with the words “peacefully and patriotically.”[viii] If the public can no longer take phraseology in the context of their figurative meaning, then we have troublesome waters ahead, since nearly every political campaigner in the history of our country has used such terminology at some point, with no intention of seeing its literal meaning played out. (Beyond this, the inability to keep the word “fight” in context means that many football games I’ve attended would have been bloodier battles than indeed they were, and that cheerleading is a very gory sport.) In fact, if the public were to consistently hold this standard to each candidate serving now, it may be very alarming that Joe Biden, on January 8, 2021, stood in a public forum and stated of Republicans, “We need a Republican party. We need an opposition that is principled and strong.”[ix] However, later in the same speech, he was asked if he thought some leading Republicans ought to resign as a result of the post-January 6, 2021, friction. His answer was: “I think they should just be flat beaten the next time they run.”[x] If our public has lost the ability to place metaphorical context around statements made, and thus presume literal intentions by the speaker, then we are reduced to conditions where a quickly chopped sentence fragment can be used to transform figurative dialogue into literal intentions and threats. If this is the case, then many may as well have also posted headlines stating that Biden had threatened to “flat beat Republicans.” Perhaps we could even raise the stakes by tweaking the language to say, “Biden wants to beat Republicans until they can’t [physically] run,” or, “Republicans should only ever walk, or the Democrats will wallop them.” See how fast this game gets out of control? Of course, all it would take is to view the full context of Biden’s speech to acknowledge that such a statement is a ridiculous reach. That wasn’t the context of his message, which referred to political campaigning and victory and loss. Yet, it would seem that nearly every statement that came out of Donald Trump’s mouth made contemptuous press for the duration of his presidency and during both the 2016 and 2020 campaigns. So, how does it come to be that certain candidates are targeted for press exploitation and others are not?
Therein lies the crux of how headlines are selectively used to prop up one candidate while villainizing another. Regardless of whether you are a Trump supporter—even aside from whether you believe that he incited the violence at the Capitol—there can be no denying that captions have sensationalized everything dislikeable about him. In all fairness, his abrasive manner, unpolished demeanor, and (at times) rough speaking style hasn’t helped matters in his defense. But is there more to it? Perhaps his conservative stances, his assertion of family values, the stand he took for the unborn, and his decisive foreign policies had something to do with it. If a politician can’t be controlled—as many knew that Trump could not—then perhaps key voices in powerful places opted to disparage him for easy removal.
Under the consolidation of the media, it becomes apparent that manipulation using headlines is more easily achieved now than ever before. And, considering the speed with which our thinking can be shaped via strategically worded headings, advertisements, or memes, an entire narrative can be crafted by careful selection of words or emphasized facts.
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What do you Meme?
If using headlines as a rumor mill isn’t alarming enough, it’s worth repeating here that memes are often mistaken for headlines by people who then perpetrate misinformation. Memes are a digital spin-off of what originated in newspapers as comic strips. They can be humorous, political, or commercial in nature. The previously referenced meme mentioning Abe Lincoln is a perfect example of one that originated as a joke but that could be misconstrued.
Memes have become powerful marketing tools in the advertising world, which illustrates precisely how powerful their pithy nature is. We can read them at a glance and take in the point with no time investment. In addition, their humorous, tongue-in-cheek nature allows them to remain on our phones, tablets, and computer screens (who hasn’t turned a screenshot of a favorite meme into their wallpaper at one time or another?) whereas a headline may be quickly passed by. In this way, memes are covert ways of relaying one-liners for those with an agenda. For example, consider the thousands of memes featuring phrases such as “You can’t fix STUPID,” “Please go home!” and “Over my dead body!” along with a picture of a political candidate or a still frame that encapsulates a political movement. These quickly circulate to bolster opinionated public response, particularly during elections. Memes are such powerful tools, in fact, that marketing agencies are still attempting to quantify their full impact.
Media Affects Politics
Even before the 2020 election, sources predicted that social media- and other Internet-based platforms would greatly influence the election’s outcome, especially amongst Millennials. This dynamic impacts the types of candidate coverage that is then taken on by different news outlets and their dedication toward unbiased coverage. This is vital, because the amount of coverage allotted to a particular hopeful has a large impact on voter decisions, especially since votes rely so strongly on name recognition.[xi] In this way, candidates who emerge with unpopular or “politically incorrect” views could lack the coverage to even get their campaign launched in the first place.[xii] Thus, they receive few votes.
News outlets have become so wired for instant gratification (recall that news reporting is 24/7 now) that news released in the morning can change the trajectory of the day’s remaining narrative.[xiii] This provides a new tactic for candidates aggressive enough to pursue it: Politicians tweeting or posting early can command the direction of news throughout the rest of the day by inciting response from counterparts.[xiv] In this way, individuals in high places who have headline-swaying power can hijack the captions in the morning and force their agenda into a particular day’s news. (This makes for handy campaigning and pushes name recognition.) In conjunction with this, independent social media profiles made by powerful individuals amplify “America’s already polarized bubbles.”[xv] Thus, just by making drama, candidates raise hype, which keeps their names popping up all over regular and social media, and diverts headline action toward being all about themselves for the rest of the day—and sometimes longer. This is problematic, because there is—as has been stated repeatedly—no accountability on matters of memes or false headlines. One can raise Cain, then later simply claim to have been joking, mistaken, or quoted out of context. This sabotages opportunities for credible journalism (and honest campaigning) and sends authentic news outlets into damage-control mode, while public emotions run high and votes are decided based on passion rather than fact.
We’ve discussed how headlines are used as tools regardless of whether they are accurate and how receptive the public is to them—even in meme form—on social media platforms. Additionally, the influence of “fact-checking” on social media platforms has the power to skew public perspective. Likewise, through micro-targeting (using data about consumers obtained by tracking their online purchases, app preferences, demographics, “likes” on social media, and other factors), campaign ads are directed at specific citizens to recruit their votes.[xvi] This is very effective, because studies in social science have shown that those who have strong opinions on certain issues, when facts reveal an economic or political condition that contradicts their belief, are likely to cling to their older misconceptions. On this matter, Professor Patrick Egan states, “There is political science research that indicates…[people] reject facts…at odds with their [own] beliefs [or stance]…and they readily accept…[statements] that comport with their beliefs.”[xvii] Also, media outlets that assert a certain political stance (conservative, liberal, etc.) attract consumers of similar positions, and often report by selective exposure—only seeking information that fits the anticipated outcome of the consumer’s desires—truth regarding candidates is muddled because the full story isn’t told. Or, if it is, the individual merely tunes it out, because it is an undesirable truth.[xviii] In simpler words, people often hear what they want to hear.
But there’s a more underhanded turn to all of this, and that’s found in controlling entities’ capacity for choosing who they wish to see win an election, and then spam the candidate’s name relentlessly during the months beforehand. The opponent of the pre-chosen one receives no press—thus, no name recognition. If the less desirable candidate proves difficult to diminish in the public’s view, he or she is increasingly villainized—true or not—until the public has a distaste for the candidate. This is often done by “character-based scripts” written by media: “Al Gore was a pompous bore,” “George W. Bush…wasn’t very smart,” and “Trump is a racist.”[xix] Strategic headlines, filtered social media posts, and witty memes drive the agenda that decides the public’s ballot decisions along with nearly everything else media can reach with its broad limbs. It may all appear to be random, generalized public consensus, but a darker script is being written, and the authors are surprisingly few.
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[i] Chi Luu, “The Incredibly True Story of Fake Headlines.” JstorDaily. November 20, 2019. Last Accessed March 3, 2021, https://daily.jstor.org/the-incredibly-true-story-of-fake-headlines/.
[iii] Patrick Egan, “Elections 2020—The Role of Social Media in U.S. Elections.” FPC Briefing at the Foreign Press Center, Department of State. New York City, NY. February 28, 2020. Last accessed March 3, 2021, https://2017-2021.state.gov/elections-101-the-role-of-social-media-in-us-elections/index.html.
[iv] Luu, “The Incredibly True Story of Fake Headlines.”.
[ix] CNN, “Biden: Trump Skipping My Inauguration a Good Thing.”
[xi] Andra Brichacek, “Six Ways the Media Influence Elections.” University of Oregon. 2021. Last accessed March 3, 2021, https://journalism.uoregon.edu/news/six-ways-media-influences-elections.
[xiii] Egan, “Elections 2020—The Role of Social Media in U.S. Elections.”
[xviii] Brichacek, “Six Ways the Media Influence Elections.”