Why I Fall For Clickbait And You Do Too

Why I Fall For Clickbait And You Do Too
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Not long ago, I clicked on a piece with the headline: “Lottery winner arrested for dumping $200,000 of manure on ex-boss' lawn.” 

The article brimmed with vivid details. The piece mentioned “54-year old Brian Morris, from the small town of Clarendon Hills in Dupage County,” and the comments at the bottom of the article seemed authentic. ‘’My begonias are still the best on the block thanks to all that manure,” noted one.

I was intrigued but also a little skeptical. A little bit of digging revealed the website to be a ruse, a satirical fake news site called “World Daily News.” 

Nobody likes to think they’re an easy mark for fake news. People don’t want to believe that they can be duped. But it turns out that Americans are far too confident about their Internet skills. 

New research from our team suggests only 1 percent of Americans know how to truly identify a fake news website, and many don’t often take the extra steps to ensure the information they are reading and sharing is credible.

I’ll admit that educating people about misinformation is a passion of mine. It started years ago when I was helping my daughter with her school work and watching how she came across fake news websites in her research on zoo animals. 

Today, as CEO of the Reboot Foundation, we explore and research the roots of “fake news” and we look for ways to combat its spread. Our most-recent study found that most people are not sophisticated consumers of online information. Among other things, many believed that a “.org” at the end of a website address was a sure sign that a site was reliable (or a sure sign that it was not reliable). 

These findings are important. The 2020 election is only weeks away, and our collective inability to detect disinformation continues to make us easy targets for those who want to divide us or just troll our Twitter feeds. Just recently, FBI Director Christopher Wray told members of Congress that he has “seen very active–very active–efforts by the Russians to influence our election in 2020.”

Through our research, we have uncovered some important drivers of weak media literacy habits. For one, older users struggle with clickbait more than younger users. They seem more attracted to the emotional content that attracts people to clickbait. In other words, it’s not your imagination that your older, retired uncle seems to share more fake news, and the older group in our study preferred the clickbait versions of headlines nearly 81 percent of the time. In contrast, the younger group preferred clickbait closer to 72 percent. 

Despite this trend, older users were better than younger ones at determining whether websites trafficked in misinformation. Our study also found that the more time people spend on social media, the harder time they have distinguishing fake news from legitimate stories.

To me, however, our most surprising finding was the overconfidence of our study’s participants. When asked the question “How confident are you in your ability to distinguish between ‘fake’ news reports and legitimate news reports,” the overwhelming majority, young and old, expressed high confidence in their abilities. Yet when we put them to the test, 64 percent of 18-to-30-year-olds and 51 percent of those older than 60 proved to be poor evaluators of a website’s credibility. 

Where do we go from here? 

For starters, there are simple steps you can take to keep from being duped by fake news and improve your critical thinking and media literacy skills. Read widely. Think like a fact checker. When you’re analyzing an article or video, poke around to determine if other sources are reporting the same thing. Research a website’s funding, background, and possible bias. Ask yourself if an author’s argument relies on evidence, or emotional reasoning.

Clearly, we cannot wait for the FBI — or Facebook — to halt the spread of disinformation online. The solution lies with us because the fake news crisis is really a crisis of media literacy.

Quick-hit interventions like those I mentioned above are good first steps, but in the long run we must commit to a sustained and determined effort to teach people, especially our youth, the critical thinking skills they need to be sophisticated consumers of information.

I live in Europe and nations here are taking this approach. In Finland, for example, schools teach students how to identify misinformation (which is defined as defective information or mistakes), disinformation (i.e. hoaxes), and so-called “malinformation,” which is gossip or stories that are intended to cause damage or hurt someone. I believe schools are a natural place to teach these skills, and that’s something we advocate for at Reboot. Unfortunately, we don’t see that happening in most American classrooms.

Our research has found that more than a third of middle school students in the U.S. say that they “rarely” or “never” learn how to judge the reliability of informational sources. I recently spoke to a large association of American school superintendents — virtually, of course — and asked for a show of hands if their schools have a formal program to teach critical thinking skills. A half-dozen hands went up. 


The point here is universal. Republican or Democrat, old or young, rich or poor, all Americans should be worried by the way that the Internet promotes the spread of disinformation. Put differently, media literacy is a problem for everyone. Lucky for us, it’s solvable.


Helen Lee Bouygues is founder and CEO of the Reboot Foundation.

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