If you clicked on this link, OMG! You are one of millions who click on enticing titles that include words like OMG! in the headline. This stuff really works. NBC and many other sources wrote this week that Macedonian teenagers have been “earning” thousands of dollars by getting people to click on fake news articles at a penny per click. The money-making headlines are called “click bait” and, aside from providing fabulous incomes in a poor country, they also stoke the flames of prejudice and fear in the U.S. and other countries.
When I first began writing this blog, I learned about clickbait, though it was called “Search Engine Optimization,” a kinder, gentler term. The idea is to use words in headlines that would grab more attention (i.e., optimize) from people searching the Internet for entertainment. I learned that any title with numbers in it, such as “5 Ways to a Lose Ten Pounds This Week!” or something heart-wrenching (“You won’t Believe What This Little Boy Did to Save His Dying Mom!”) will get lots of readers. I lost patience trying to concoct headlines that would draw more clicks (forget about money—there’s no money to be made here). The only headlines that have ever drawn quite large responses have included the words “Free” and/or “Cat.”
The serious problem is that clickbait works and it can be used to spread fake news. Last week’s example of that is the man who showed up with a gun at a pizza parlor near Washington, D.C., who had read and believed a fake news article about child sex trafficking at the eatery. There are times, however, when I wish the news was fake. I would have been much happier if a teenaged Macedonian had invented the news in this Fortune Magazine article: “Trump’s Pick for Secretary of Labor: ‘Ugly’ Women Don’t Sell Burgers.”