How To Avoid the Clickbait Trap

By Tracey Dowdy

I’ve been seeing what seems to be a lot more clickbait in my Facebook newsfeed lately. Posts like What This Firefighter Does on the Side of the Road Will Blow You Away, What Does Your Name Actually Mean?, or What This Adorable Little Girl Says Next Will Melt Your Heart.

Posts like these are designed to target your “curiosity gap,” the part of your brain that piques your interest so you just have to click on that link. Most of the clickbait posts you see are harmless, although don’t forget that every click is recorded by someone, somewhere. Facebook and savvy marketers track those clicks very carefully indeed, using complicated algorithms to see which headlines generate the most traffic.

So what is clickbait anyway? Is it really a big deal? And what did that firefighter do on the side of the road?

Facebook describes it this way: “‘Clickbait’ is when a publisher posts a link with a headline that encourages people to click to see more, without telling them much information about what they will see.”

In other words, it’s basically the same trick that news presenters use to make sure you come back after the commercial break: “Researchers say this common household cleaner is linked to cancer in children.” You think, “Wait, what? I clean my house. Does that mean I’m giving my kids cancer? I better stick around after the break and find out.”

Vox’s acting managing editor, Nilay Patel, writes “Most clickbait is disappointing because it’s a promise of value that isn’t met—the payoff isn’t nearly as good as what the reader imagines.”

It’s not a big deal if you’ve got low expectations. Think of clickbait as cotton candy for your brain: you know it isn’t good for you, there’s no real substance and it’s overpriced, but you’re at the fair so why not? With clickbait you know there’s no deep philosophical truth on the other end of that link, the payoff won’t be as great as is promised, and your life won’t be any more complete than it was 30 seconds ago.

What is a big deal is that not all clickbait is harmless. Last year, innocent victims clicked on a link that promised information about missing Malaysian Airways flight MH370. Individuals were directed to a third party site where they were prompted to update software to watch a video. Instead of getting information on MH370, they inadvertently downloaded malware.

So how are you supposed to know what’s harmless and what is going to potentially infect your computer with anything from porn popups to keystroke logging software?

Remember the first rule of the internet: “Never click on unfamiliar links.” In addition, these five tips from the Better Business Bureau can help protect you:

  • Don’t take the bait. Stay away from promotions of “exclusive,” “shocking” or “sensational” footage. If it sounds too outlandish to be true (Bermuda Triangle, really?), it is probably a scam.
  • Hover over a link to see its true destination. Before you click, mouse over the link to see where it will take you. Don’t click on links leading to unfamiliar websites.
  • Don’t trust your friends’ taste online. It might not actually be them “liking” or sharing links to photos. Their account may have been hacked. But it may also be “clickjacking,” a technique that scammers use to trick you into clicking on something that you would otherwise ignore. (Great example: the Facebook “Like” button).
  • On Facebook, report scam posts and other suspicious activity by following these instructions.
  • On Twitter, if another user is sending you links to malware or other spam, report it to Twitter by following these instructions. “

And finally, that firefighter. His name is Casey Lessard and he lay on the ground beside a critically injured car accident victim so the distraught child could watch Happy Feet until the ambulance arrived. Now there’s a link that’s worth clicking on!

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Toronto, ON. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances and researches on subjects from family and education to pop culture and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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