Today’s internet landscape is peppered with innovative ploys aimed at encouraging browsers to click a link that tickles their fancy. But something smells increasingly off; words are being twisted, connotations played with, and people are being lured in under false pretences. With the internet representing such a large pond, it is impossible to keep an eye on all of the fish, and inevitably some of them are taking advantage of the murky waters. In this article, I will discuss a number of examples which show the semantic games being played by sites in an attempt to create storms where there simply aren’t any. We are all out there trying to find an edge and move up the Google rankings, but there are companies who are just plain lying.
The false title
Take a look at the following headline: Why has Conor Mcgregor been threatened with six month suspension?
Shocking! Right? One of the world’s best MMA fighters may be facing a six month suspension. There is only really one thing which could be behind such a dramatic revelation – drugs. But hang on, wait a minute; upon clicking through and reading the article, which you can do here (although it goes against the whole point of this argument) there is some confusion.
So natural reaction to this headline? Oh my god Conor McGregor has been suspended. Is it drugs? It must be. This is crazy, I have to read about it. The reality, however, is somewhat different. A more in depth examination of the article reveals that Conor McGregor may have to spend 6 months on the side-lines because of a wrist injury. Absolutely ridiculous. This is manipulation of connotations, pure and simple. The obvious negative connotations of the word ‘suspension’ are used here to drum up an air of controversy, as are the even more negative connotations of the word ‘threatened’. While ‘threatened’ could arguably be used in a headline about an athlete being injured, the connotations of ‘suspension’ have no bearing whatsoever. When is someone even under a suspension if they are injured? At the end of the day is this not some form of fraud? Click-throughs, especially these days, are extremely lucrative for companies. Indeed, having clicked on this Conor McGregor article I was faced with a barrage of other articles, not to mention ads from poker sites etc.
The twisted title
Context is a beautiful thing, and so it is confusing as to why headline architects, and particularly those working for the less reputable news sites, seem to have no time for it at all. Below is a YouTube video with a title that would prompt even the most conservative of us to shout ‘shut the front door’. World famous pop star, and past troublemaker Justin Bieber apparently threw a tantrum and stormed off the set of a radio show. Click, click, click, click. But alas, if only these riled up browsers knew exactly what they would be waiting until the end of the 9 minute long video to see. Yep that’s right; after a very pleasant conversation with three Spanish DJs (I skipped to the end to see if he actually walked out) Mr Bieber goes to play a game in the studio, but accidentally steps through the wrong door. The video conveniently stops before Justin can be seen returning. At no point is there any tension between the interviewers and Justin Bieber.
So technically Justin Bieber has physically ‘walked off the set’ of the radio show. There is no lie there. But who out there would ever read that title and think ‘oh Justin Bieber has walked off through the wrong door or has just gone to the toilet for a second’? The answer to that question is nobody. Nobody would ever think that. Actually the devices here are all about context. The writer has taken a completely normal occurrence (Bieber walking through the wrong door), and, with full knowledge of how people would perceive this (given Bieber’s history), put a deliberately negative spin on it. How clever! Not.
Quote what you want. Omit what you want.
I’ll just dive straight in with an example here: Man Utd have bored me – van Gaal
Oh and here is a picture similar (but far more flattering) to the one which accompanied the headline, just in case you needed help imagining how bored and upset the Dutchman is.
A pretty standard, attention grabbing headline, and another lesson for Louis on the negativity which runs through the heart of many English journalists. Of course, upon reading the article there will be a barrage of quotes about Man Utd’s boring displays. Oh, hang on; no there will not. In reality, perhaps 5% of the article discusses Utd’s bad play, while the majority of it sees van Gaal outlining, quite rightly, that while the season hasn’t been the best, his team are through to the next round of the FA Cup.
It seems the sad fact is that a lot of us like a dramatic and negative headline. A really interesting BBC article by Tom Stafford (which you can read here) talks about this inclination towards negativity, with a riveting Canadian study thrown in for good measure.
Anything being done?
Deception and manipulation are everywhere in today’s online world. Take your pick; the impossible basketball shot, a bird picking up a child in its talons, the levitating person. You name it, people who want to make a quick buck have thought of it. So is something being done? The answer is yes…..kind of. Videos such as these, at least, are being clamped down on, albeit somewhat slowly. Facebook has recently come out saying that fake stories designed to steer readers to a certain site will be removed if flagged up by suspicious Facebook users.
Is it our fault?
It could well be the that journalists are taking advantage of the innate tools which us humans possess in order to deal with danger. Tom Stafford talks about the ‘danger reaction’, whereby essentially we are naturally inclined to react quicker to, and better remember, negative words and phrases, particularly if they are linked with danger. Makes sense right? But innate tools or no innate tools, headline makers are flirting dangerously with the line between manipulation and lying. Headlines have always been dramatic; their sole purpose, after all, is to attract attention and encourage the reader to read on. But online headlines are different; headline and article do not share the same page, hence these backhanded tactics to get that all important click-through.