The Skeptic’s Toolbox: Identifying and Resisting Clickbait

From a lecture series presented by The Great Courses

You don’t have to spend much time on the internet before you come across a sensational headline: a question or statement designed to draw you in. This phenomenon, known as “clickbait,” drives much of the way information is presented online—and it plays to our biases and distorts the truth. Find out how to identify and resist “clickbait,” in order to become a savvier reader and consumer.

Clickbait headlines internet concept. Journalism connected with marketing in on-line world

Web sites make their revenue by drawing people in—that is, by getting you to click on links to see more pages, which then show you more advertisements in order to make the website more money. A link that’s especially designed to attract clicks—to be essentially irresistible to people who are casually surfing around—is called “clickbait.” Identifying and resisting clickbait is a valuable skill for any consumer.

Advertisers Bet You’ll Click This Link

Here is an example from CBS News, a page called, “Too Much of This Will Kill You.” The headline is not “These Things Are Risky,” or “Too Much of This Might Kill You.” No, to make effective clickbait, you need a grabby title that people can’t just ignore. You see that headline, “Too Much of This Will Kill You,” and you have to ask yourself “Too much of what? What’s going to kill me?” Well, you have to click to find out. Once you click it—well, you get a few additional items of information, just some highlights.

Hand holding a black smart phone with clickbait concept on screen. Isolated on white background.

A second example is clickbait for information about licorice, black licorice to be precise. The article says that eating more than two ounces a day could put you in the hospital with an irregular heartbeat. The picture that accompanies the article is of three scantily clad women wearing, mostly, licorice (seriously, you can’t make this stuff up). There is a germ of truth here: The Food and Drug Administration warned people in 2016 not to eat too much black licorice every single day. But there haven’t actually been any deaths, as the clickbait title would lead you to believe.

A third example of clickbait is about eating too much liver, specifically polar bear liver. Apparently if you eat over a pound of polar bear liver at once, you can get dangerously high amounts of vitamin A. Other items in the list warn against drinking too much water or too eating too much salt. The whole structure of the story is kind of silly and exaggerated, and doesn’t really convey any useful information about genuine health risks, unless you happen to be someone who enjoys huge portions of salted polar bear liver.

This is a transcript from the video series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The psychology of clickbaiting—that is, looking at why clickbait works—was evaluated in a 2015 paper called “Breaking the News: First Impressions Matter on Online News.” The authors looked at close to 70,000 headlines from four big, international media companies. They found that the most popular stories—the ones that got the most clicks—tended to have headlines that were very emotionally extreme, either from a positive or negative side. That is, stories with scary or very negative headlines, like “These Things Will Kill You,” or stories with very positive emotional headlines, like “Man Rescued by His Long-Lost Dog, and You’ll Love What Happened Next,” were more popular than stories with more neutral headlines.

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Facts about Internal Biases

Those examples help to explain the problem of relying on clickbait headlines to find health news. They bypass rationality and critical thinking, and go straight for the emotional jugular. That’s no way to find the kind of information that’s likely to improve your health. Most of the time, misleading health information reported by online media sources is driven by clickbaiting, attention seekers, or commercial interests. Aside from the issue of health news simply being fake, even well-meaning reporters still get it wrong. Often reporters relay mistaken information because of internal biases about how they view the world. One example is the tendency to attribute cause-and-effect connections to unrelated things.

We do this all the time. If you get a bellyache, you start to think about what you ate that may have caused it. Or a baseball player might continue to wear his same lucky pair of socks when he’s on a hot hitting streak. Sometimes, these kinds of patterns turn out to be real. If every time you drink milk, say, you get the same stomach ache, that might really be a connection. But our brains will often find connections that aren’t there. And once we’ve starting thinking that way, “confirmation bias” kicks in, which is a tendency to pay attention to evidence that supports our belief, and ignore evidence that refutes it.

classic soccer ball, football in black and white on lines on green artificial turf

Here is an example of how these kinds of biased stories play out in the media. A headline from 2015, from NBC News, “Mom of Goalie Who Died of Cancer Wants Answers on Artificial Turf.” The story focuses on June Leahy, whose school-age daughter was a talented soccer goalie. She had played since kindergarten. In 2008, while playing for the University of Miami, Ms. Leahy’s daughter developed non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes. She died in 2012. Her mother, devastated, learned that three other soccer goalies had a similar diagnosis. She’s quoted in the article, saying, “I realized, oh my God, the thing that she loved most probably killed her.” The video that accompanies this story is titled “Why won’t the government say whether this artificial turf is safe?”

After these quotes and this heartbreaking story, the article goes on to say that no research has linked these kinds of artificial turf surfaces to cancer, and quotes a toxicologist as saying, “There’s zero reason to be concerned that playing on synthetic turf will put your child at risk for cancer. It’s simply not true.” We already know that most people just skim the headlines. And even if you did read further down, those disclaimers, information from actual experts in this area, are buried after the emotional appeal from the concerned mother. You can imagine what kind of impact articles like this could have.

Learn more about strategies for how to outwit advertisers

Further Check on Internal Biases

There was another driver to this story, and the hundreds of similar articles that continued to surround this subject for the next few years. A soccer coach named Amy Griffin from the University of Washington, who had once coached Ms. Leahy’s daughter, heard of several soccer players with cancer, and she started keeping a list. Her list included young people who had played soccer since about the mid-1990s, and by 2016 her list included 53 people. And, that list did attract significant attention both from the press and from public health authorities, which, honestly, was a good thing. There may have been something to this. In public health circles, the question was whether this group of people was indeed a “cluster,” or an unexpected concentration of illness connected in some way.

That teenagers were being diagnosed with cancer is itself not surprising—about 5,000 teens develop cancer each year in the United States. But did this specific grouping, all of people who had played soccer on artificial turf, mean that there was some kind of added risk from that exposure? The Washington State Department of Health published the results of their study in early 2017. They looked at the expected rates of cancer among Washington state residents of the same age as the people on Coach Griffith’s list and compared that to the actual rates of cancers that had been reported.

The results were completely reassuring. The number of people on the list was only 2 percent of what would have been predicted using the average cancer rates. Of course, not every soccer player with cancer was reported to Coach Griffin, but that 2 percent figure was so far below what was expected that the State Health Department declared unequivocally that people who enjoy playing soccer should keep playing, even on artificial turf. An industry spokesman added in a statement quoted by CNN, “Physical activity is among the strongest strategies for preventing cancer, and that, if anything, synthetic turf fields aid the fight against cancer.”

That really should have ended the controversy, but it didn’t. CNN’s headline—and this is from an article published after the Washington Health Department’s publication—said “Soccer Players’ Cancers Ignite Debate over Turf Safety.” The story includes a summary of the reassuring findings, but also quotes from parents like these: “No one at this point can convince me that playing on ground-up tires is a healthy option for kids,” and “I don’t let my kids play on artificial turf.” Ms. Griffin is continuing to keep her list, and CNN calls it, quote, “A growing debate over turf.” But the debate really shouldn’t be growing, not any more. There’s solid evidence that the perceived increased risk is just that, a perception, which didn’t hold up under objective scrutiny.

The Slippery Nature of What We Know

There is a famous quote widely attributed to Winston Churchill: “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on.” Type that into Google, and you’ll almost certainly find it attributed to the late British prime minister. Ironically, Churchill himself almost certainly never said it. If he did, he would have said “trousers” instead of the more-American word, “pants.” Again, just because the internet says something, and even if it’s said over and over again on multiple sites, that doesn’t make it true.

Nevertheless, even if Churchill never said it, the quote is interesting. The medical media, and especially the internet, is a great way to quickly spread information. But the information is not a particularly good separation of fake news from real news, or biased news from unbiased news. It’s apt to draw the most attention to the most freakish, unexpected, and emotional stories, though.

Identifying valid health news can sometimes be a ponderous and slow process, especially as compared to the rapid pace of news stories flying across the internet. Keep this in mind when you’re reading media stories, and don’t depend solely on social media and unverifiable internet posts to provide the fact-based information you need to make health decisions. Always keep that skeptic’s toolbox handy.

From the lecture series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media, taught by Professor Roy Benaroch, M.D.