The Ethics of Fake News & Clickbait

In this era of digital consumption, pieces of information are being catapulted across the Internet at speeds that defy traditional methods of sharing. Word of mouth, newspapers, and even television have succumbed to mighty online sharing avenues like social media, websites, and apps. Within seconds, information can be published and shared all across the globe – reaching huge, diverse audiences that digest content in a variety of ways. Some audiences are serial sharers that click “retweet” or “share to timeline” without even batting an eye. Other audiences are keen, silent absorbers that thoroughly investigate content that grabs their attention. Whichever audience you may fall into, one thing rings true – it is becoming harder and harder to decipher what is real, honest content and what is faked.

A Bit of History

During the past Amerian presidential election “fake news” was at the forefront of conversation. The phrase was slung around so carelessly that it began to lose meaning. Fake news went from being something that was factually incorrect or completely fabricated, to something that was incorrect because someone/a party/a company vehemently disagreed with what was said. Broadcasters and media centers – and the general public – began to feel threatened by these diabolical frauds. Fakeness even began to touch our personal lives and entertainment outlets. Popular YouTubers, Instagrammers, and social sites like Buzzfeed, became notorious for using clickbait. Through loud and flashy video thumbnails or wildly sensationalized titles, clickbait helped to not only help facilitate the spread of fake news, but it also helped to situate distrust and uncertainty into viewers. More advanced methods, such as video and audio synthesizing, create extremely convincing fakes, with only industry professionals able to debunk them. While fake news and the newer methods of creating them have only been recently shining in the spotlight, fake media and the devices associated with it have been around for centuries.

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country. We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, and our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. It is they who pull the wires that control the public mind.”
– Edward Bernays

As early as the Civil War era, there has been evidence of fake news and manipulation of the truth by the media. Fake news and sensationalized pieces hit a peak in the late 1890s due to the notorious Pulitzer/Hearst newspaper rivalry. During this rivalry, the Hearst newspaper used a comic following the adventures of the “Yellow Kid” to spike sales. The comic delighted readers, causing papers to be read for the entertainment value rather than the “hard news” it contained. It was from here that the term “yellow journalism,” a precursor to the word clickbait, was coined.

Publishers began to struggle with how they should view their readers. Should they be considered consumers or citizens? What was good for the readers was not always profitable for the papers. This conflict has since transcended into modern media, with authors sweating which is worse – not making the amount of desired (or demanded) amount of views or not providing the honest truth? Their job is made even harder by the new economy that surrounds fake news. Some fake news writers are cited to make up to $10,000 a month just on the ad money alone. These unverified sources steal views and audience penetration, racking up shares and likes before authorities (be it legal or otherwise) can even authenticate any of the information publicized in the content. This brings us to the larger discussion at hand; what are the limitations regarding things like clickbait that sensationalize the truth and how far can marketing go before becoming unethical?

A Discussion of Ethics

As previously mentioned, digital consumption outlets like social media have become a breeding ground for fake news and clickbaity content. This condition originates an interesting societal quirk; technology and the shift from deep to shallow work, has shortened our attention spans so much so that 59% of links shared on social networks actually are not clicked on or viewed at all. Reading an article in full takes up precious time and effort – things that a modern viewer would have a hard time sacrificing, especially if that content had a high chance of either being boring or lacking value. Instead, people are relying on the content of a headline to determine whether or not the information in the article is valuable or shareable. Clearly, in these instances, controversy and exaggeration sell.

Highly engaged with clickbaity/fake news content can also attribute its reach and penetration to paid efforts. Regardless of whether or not the content is factually correct, promoting content allows for selective targeting so that the piece reaches individuals who would likely mindlessly hit “share” over someone who would read the article in its totality, or someone who would fact-check before sharing it with their network. Advertising and paid efforts have become so seamlessly integrated with the feed to the point where many do not recognize them as anything but organic content. While there are a growing number of people who are able to distinguish the ads and sponsored content from the organic, regulators like the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) fight to make sure that brands and influencers are transparent with their marketing efforts. As a micro-influencer myself, I have had experience with these rules. On my platform, with every sponsored or product partnership post I create, I need to clearly indicate in the hashtags or in the description (varies by brand) that the content was created in partnership. This helps to solidify with my audience exactly what they are seeing as well as ensuring the brands I work with are compliant with legal mandates. Overall, these regulations are positive steps forward to crack down on potentially detrimental material from circulating around the web.

All of this information leads us to form one big question: with all of the rules, stipulations, and historical background in mind, what are ethical practices a company can implement in regards to content marketing? As we have seen, clickbaity content, as well as controversial content, works extremely well to rake in the views. While there are definitely some negative consequences if one wants to use these techniques, many marketers are in favor of taking bits and pieces of these practices and using them in moral ways. Some examples of this can be seen in Kelsey Libert’s case study for Abodo, where she emphasizes that it is possible to use controversy in content ethically to earn positive pick-up from audiences and other media sources. Further examples can be seen in Neil Patel’s blog where he breaks down why clickbait works and how to leverage it properly. After viewing these examples and a numerous amount of other sources, I’ve determined that there are a few key things to keep in mind in order to ethically practice and create for content marketing:

    1. Stay true to the data: Let the data speak for itself. Your team put a lot of time into conducting research in order to find the truth so let those numbers and facts be the basis for the content. Try to not sway the data or take a stance on what is presented, you will have better engagement and pick-up if you allow others to spin their own perspective off of what you’ve presented.
    2. Be transparent: Make sure all ads and sponsored content are clearly identified to the viewers. By creating an open and honest rapport with your audience, you create authority within the space which will then, in turn, positively affect your engagement rate.
    3. Check and then double-check: Before you hit the publish button make sure you have run your content through several rounds of fact-checking and quality assurance to make sure that your piece is up to date and as accurate as possible.

So What Do I Think?

As a conclusion to this post, I believe that all content marketers and companies should aim to be as authentic and honest as possible with their audiences. Yes, it has been proven over and over again that the crazy and fake get the views, but those posts do not garner a following or dedicated viewership. Being a micro-influencer, I’ve had the experience of building up a positive and engaged following that feeds off of my personality and unbiased opinion, regardless of sponsorship. For companies or individuals looking to get a quick fix, clickbait gets old very quickly and consistently tacky content will lead to a decrease in engagement and a lack of authority.

I also believe that it is up to the viewers now to determine what is worthy content and what is not. Take the time to read, research, and get a second opinion. Sharing an article without reading it does nothing but damage your image and clog your friends’ newsfeeds. By becoming more aware of content marketing and unethical practices currently being used by some media sources, you’ll become less likely to latch onto that hook and journey on to find a better – more accurate – piece of content. Always remember that YOU’RE the fish that advertisers want to catch, do yourself a favor and make it more difficult for them – it’ll only make their job a lot more interesting. Keep on swimming!

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