It’s often hard to distinguish between what has come to be known as “clickbait”—which according to Dictionary.com is “a sensationalized headline or piece of text on the internet designed to entice people to follow a link to an article on another web page”—and simply a clever headline.

What irks me about true clickbait headlines is that the story often contradicts or fails to mention the claim made in the headline. Of course, if the entire story is merely fabricated or exaggerated in ways that obscure what is actually going on, that is a problem, too.

News organizations are no strangers to sensationalized headlines. In fact, the newspaper business invented an entire category for what is called clickbait, namely, tabloids. The often repeated adage that “if it bleeds, it leads” is reaffirmed on a daily basis.

(Tabloids are, of course, named after the tabloid format that many sensationalizing newspapers adopt. The most recognizable newspaper format is called broadsheet which is used by major daily papers around the world. For a very short explanation of newspaper sizes, you can click here.)

Now, adult readers should generally be left to sort things out for themselves. They can learn to trust and mistrust news sources from experience and weigh the headlines and information provided accordingly. I know many people are very concerned about the kind of fantasies offered on the Internet that lead otherwise sane people to disconnect from any shared reality and even resort to violence. That is certainly a problem, and it requires an entire book to explain and respond to. I don’t plan to deal with it here.

What concerns me here is that the clickbait model of business is now ubiquitous on the Internet. Unless the information you are selling on the Internet is so compelling that people are willing to pay a fee to access it or support it, no one expecting to make a living providing content for Internet readers can afford not to create clickbait. Clicks bring people to a site and clicks are what advertisers pay for.

I am amused when I hear people say that they have temporarily had their access to Facebook, Twitter or other social media downgraded or withdrawn because they are posting clickbait. Really, I’m not making this up! This is considered a genuine breach of the user agreement for these sites even though the sites themselves are supported by ads for which the platforms only receive payments per click! Even if the managers of these platforms say the opposite, they want their advertisers to produce ads that are very close to clickbait. That’s how the platforms maximize their revenue.

As daily newspapers and other major news sources have been crippled by the move of readers to the Internet, those publications must adapt to the new environment or perish (as many of them have and continue to do). The push for clicks is leading increasingly to the inevitable. Less than scintillating but important stories such as those about city council proceedings and school board meetings are either minimized or skipped altogether in favor of news and feature stories showcasing the weird, bizarre, disturbing, and titillating. Newspaper publishers and other media outlets know what people read click-by-click. If they don’t feed the public’s appetite for stimulation, then the clickbait masters elsewhere on the Internet will steal readers’ attention away.

So, what are news providers supposed to do? They can try to charge readers for the news they provide. This is becoming more and more difficult since most Internet users are accustomed to having free content and will often go elsewhere when faced with a paywall. News providers can organize as a nonprofit and seek donations from wealthy donors and from readers. That’s the model that famed investigative journalism site ProPublica has adopted. Or they can do what a large number of news providers have done, namely, rely on advertising for their revenues—which, of course, puts them right back in thrall to the clickbait monster.

Perhaps it is worth it to back up and ask ourselves, is the clickbait headline a much worse problem than what we have experienced before the Internet? In the United States, we used to have three television networks with roughly similar nightly newscasts. In countries with state-supported media such as the BBC, these outlets provided the primary broadcast news for most people in the country.

There used to be daily newspapers in all but the most humble of hamlets. And, even rural areas generally had weeklies that reported local news. The news wire services such as the Associated Press provided national and international news carefully vetted by an highly experienced group of editors.

There was less confusion and contradiction because news came from fewer sources that had extensive elite backing. This news environment helped to create a shared reality, one shared by a very large majority of people in most countries.

Whether that reality provided an honest assessment of the workings of government, industry and commerce is doubtful. But it created a dominant assessment.

While today pressure to attract readers and advertising revenues is daunting in our current clickbait environment, obtaining both has always been the challenge for any news outlet. What is different today is that we are fighting over what our shared reality should be. The narratives offered by news outlets and the many blogs and journals of opinion are so varied and sometimes bizarre, that the reading public can no longer find a single, unifying story to make sense of it all.

I wrote in 2018 that “[w]e are now in a fight not over opinions concerning the import of agreed upon facts, but over the consensus itself—whether scientific findings can be trusted, whether corporate-owned media can be believed, whether ‘objective’ reporting is even possible, whether the history we were taught is indeed the ‘true’ history of our country and our world.” I’ve touched upon the consensus issue again recently in two pieces here and here.

The concern that we are no longer being served well by the news media is as much a function of the clickbait environment as of our own discomfort over there being no stable consensus about anything of importance including how to govern ourselves, how to educate our young people, how to treat disease and promote health, how to relate to foreign countries and to immigrants from them, and myriad other issues.

How do we make sense of a world in which there is no clear consensus on how to approach these critical issues or even on how to frame what the critical issues are? How does one write news stories in such a world? Right now, it means catering to one narrowly held worldview or another. And even that may not work as those worldviews splinter even further. This was recently the case with right-wing outlet Fox News which lost viewership to upstart media outlets such as NewsMax and One America News whose narratives remained in lockstep with those of now former President Trump when Fox News departed from Trump’s views.

Societies that can come to no rough consensus on how to conduct their affairs are in danger of crumbling. If there is no agreed upon process for resolving disputes, then who will respect any pronouncement from the courts, legislatures, election officials and scientific and public health bodies.

Part of the way a society knits itself together is through the stories it tells itself. A rigid uniformity in those stories will almost certainly lead to stagnation and a suffocating of creativity and needed change in society. However, if the stories are too divergent, we will be unable to find common ground.

The need for clickbait stories is a huge problem in that it forces news outlets to relinquish their role as storytellers who can bind a diverse society together. The question is: What could take their place as unifying agents who can project enough respect for diversity to help us discover the rough consensus necessary to move forward in all the critical areas of our society?

Image: Cartoon: “The Yellow Press”, by L.M. Glackens. (1910). “llustration shows William Randolph Hearst as a jester tossing newspapers with headlines such as “Appeals to Passion, Venom, Sensationalism, Attacks on Honest Officials, Strife, Distorted News, Personal Grievance, [and] Misrepresentation” to a crowd of eager readers, among them an anarchist assassinating a politician speaking from a platform draped with American flags” ViaWikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_Yellow_Press_by_L.M._Glackens.jpg