Blogs & Comment

You’ll never believe what this blog post is about: Peter Nowak

The answer is manipulative headlines

 Arianna Huffington (Norm Betts/Bloomberg/Getty)

Arianna Huffington (Norm Betts/Bloomberg/Getty)

One of my New Year’s resolutions is to avoid clicking on headlines and/or Tweets that are obviously designed to be seductive and alluring. It’s simply because I don’t like being manipulated, and this festering phenomenon is all about that sort of thing.

We’ve all seen them and we’ve probably all been suckered in by them. They’re headlines or Tweets that reveal only partial information, tantalizing us with the rest if we only click and thereby add to the purveyor’s traffic numbers.

The Huffington Post is a particularly big practitioner of this dark art. The news site’s Tweets are practically scientifically crafted to manipulate. Take “The country all food lovers need to visit, ASAP,” just one of the site’s many, many examples (posted Tuesday). Who doesn’t love food? And therefore, who doesn’t want to click on that Tweet? Not clicking would forever deny you information that you simply cannot get through life without.

It’s too bad the country in question is Belgium, a place that no one considers to be a hotbed of culinary creations. The site’s editors know this, which is why they didn’t go with the more informative – and more honest – Twitter headline on what is essentially a photo gallery of Belgian foods. Something like, “Check out Belgium’s underrated cuisine” would have been way more straight-up, but it probably would have attracted far fewer clicks. And yes, it’s clicks – not readers. I know I didn’t read the article after discovering it was about Belgium, but who cares – I added to the metrics anyway.

I’m not alone in objecting to this unfortunate evolution of the news business, which is why @HuffPoSpoilers has become one of my favourite Twitter accounts. They check out the alluring headlines and get disappointed so that you don’t have to.

The absolute worst lures are the hooks that try to get you to question your beliefs. You’ll know them because they always start with, “You’ll never believe…” and end with you wanting to slap whoever wrote the headline in the face for being so dumb.

Here’s the Washington Post saying that, “You’ll never believe what doctors are using to fight gut infections: fecal transplants.” Fecal Transplants? Yuck, that’s gross. But is it unbelievable? Given that the story spends a good amount of time with scientists explaining that fecal transplants contain bacteria that can in fact be used in positive biological ways, well then yes, I’m inclined to believe that. Now, if doctors were using unicorn tears… well, that’s something I might have doubts about.

And then there’s Grind TV suggesting that, “You’ll never believe where these waterfalls are hidden (hint: it’s not Hawaii).” The answer is actually the Grand Canyon… you know, where there are canyons that are perfectly suited to having water – like maybe the Colorado River, which cuts through it – fall over them? Again, if the waterfalls in question were hidden in, say, the intestinal tract of a 3,000-year-old elf, I might be inclined to not believe it.

News agencies and websites have been using different tricks to attract traffic for as long as the Internet has been around, but this relatively new – and spreading – tactic seems a little dirtier than most. With luck, it ends up biting its practitioners in their figurative butts as angry readers (like me) get turned off.

The lure to that story might be, “You’ll never guess how manipulative headlines are backfiring,” but the answer – as it always is – will be obvious.