Thursday, January 16, 2020

What's the Catch of Clickbait?

Harvard Law Professor Larry Lessig is suing the New York Times for defamation, stemming from a headline that read "A Harvard Professor Doubles Down: If You Take Epstein’s Money, Do It in Secret". The lede of the article, in turn, opens by saying "It is hard to defend soliciting donations from the convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein. But Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law professor, has been trying."

Lessig contends that this grotesquely misrepresents the position he was taking, which is to not condemn fundraisers when some of the donors they solicit turn out to be unsavory or disreputable. He also asserts that the Times refused to alter its headline or lede after Lessig complained, preferring a flashy and provocative (albeit misleading) title to one that more accurately (but dully) reflects Lessig's actual view. While the article does give a more balanced presentation of his argument later on, Lessig contends that many people never read past the headline and so will only come away with a false picture.

This is all very interesting to defamation scholars, I'm sure. But I want to focus on what has to be the least important aspect of Lessig's complaint: What does "click-bait" mean?
Defendant's actions here are part of a growing journalistic culture of click-baiting. . . . Defendants are fully aware that many, if not most, readers never read past the clickbait...The use of this tactic represents a uniquely troubling media practice as it relates to the harm to and destruction of the reputation of the target of the clickbait.
Here's my bone of contention: clearly there is an issue whereby readers see only a headline and read no further, rendering moot the presence of a more complex depiction in the body text.

But it strikes me as weird to use "clickbait" to characterize the phenomenon. "Clickbait" literally refers to the use of a provocative or flashy headline as means of prompting ("baiting") readers to access ("click") the whole article. The idea is that the title is so juicy and irresistible that the person who sees it on, say, Facebook cannot help but click the link and read the article.

Now to be sure, part of the function of click-bait is that the site owner only cares about the click, that is, that the reader accessed the page (and thereby juices the site's hit rate for ad revenue purposes). The site probably doesn't care if the reader actually ends up reading any of the article text, much less if she completes it. Indeed, it seems likely that many of the readers who are attracted by the title ("oh man, this I've got to see!") will drift away disappointed once they encountered the more prosaic story underneath.

Nonetheless, it strikes me as a weird to say that "readers never read past the clickbait", because the whole purpose of the clickbait is to drive them to the site with the full article. If they only read the clickbait, then the clickbait has failed, because the actual "clickbait" is the content that one can see without ever clicking through to the site. If the New York Times runs a headline like this, the last thing they want is for me to see that headline on Facebook and then read nothing more. They want the bait to catch me -- for me to click the link and actually head over to the NYT site (where I will, presumably, read at least a little more of the article before realizing I've been, well, baited).

1 comment:

Bonivard said...

"the whole purpose of the clickbait is to drive them to the site with the full article. If they only read the clickbait, then the clickbait has failed"

I completely agree with this, but it doesn't really contradict Lessig's argument? It's perfectly plossible for a paper to deliberately use clickbait to draw in (say) 1.000 extra readers to their site, while being "fully aware" that another 20.000 people will see the clickbait without clicking through.