Tohidul Islam Raso

Research Officer, Dismislab
How clickbait headlines spread confusion on social media
This article is more than 7 months old

How clickbait headlines spread confusion on social media

Tohidul Islam Raso

Research Officer, Dismislab

Recently, a news headline about the tragic death of a woman after getting her Saree stuck on the metrorail door was seen to be spreading on Facebook through photocard. Several media outlets had also published the news. However, this has created a lot of confusion among the readers due to the headline not specifying the location of the occurrence. Although the incident took place in India, since the headline did not mention the location, many social media users shared the news assuming it to be of Bangladesh. Many have also commented that the news headline should have specified the location of the incident. 

The incident took place on December 14 in Delhi, the capital of India, at the Inderlok station. The woman whose saree got lodged in the metro rail door passed away on December 16, while undergoing treatment. Numerous Bangladeshi media outlets published the news (1, 2, 3). However, the fact that the incident originated in India was not mentioned in the news headlines.

Subsequently, a photo card regarding this issue was released on a Facebook page named The Bangladesh Moments. This photo card was extensively shared on multiple pages (1, 2), groups (1, 2), and personal profiles (1, 2, 3). Since the photo card also failed to mention India as the place of occurrence, many shared the photo card without reading the detailed report, believing it to be an incident in Bangladesh. Many people also made various comments on that post thinking the incident to be of Bangladesh.

“This was bound to happen in Bangladesh”, one user remarked. Another user commented, “Bangladesh will undergo development but its citizens won’t endure hardships. How can that be?”. “This was also done by the BNP; the Bangladesh police will say”, another one remarked. Following this, Rumor Scanner published a fact-checked report in this regard.

This is not the first case of confusion regarding news headlines. The same thing had happened with another incident in Karnataka, India this month. All members of a family had committed suicide as a result of financial difficulties in India. Later on, this news was circulated without mentioning the location of the incident on several news headlines of Bangladeshi media outlets (1, 2), and photo card on Facebook. This led social media users (1, 2, 3) to share the news on Facebook, mistakenly believing it to be an incident in Bangladesh. To address the mix-up, Rumor Scanner had published a fact-check report at that time as well.

Another case of confusion had also unfolded in December and once again, the incident traces back to India. Similar to the previous incidents, the absence of the specific location in the news headlines presented by Bangladeshi media led to users mistakenly thinking the incident occurred in Bangladesh. The incident was a staggering Tk 466 crore being discovered at the residence of Congress Rajya Sabha MP Dhiraj Prasad Sahu in Jharkhand, India. Mainstream media ‘Kalbela’ had reported on this with the headline, “466 crore recovered from MP’s house!” Later on, they also shared a photo card on their Facebook page without specifying that the incident had occurred in India. As a result, numerous Facebook users (1, 2, 3) circulated the news thinking it to be an incident in Bangladesh without reading the entire report. Unsurprisingly, this led to various negative comments on the photo card post.

Back in March, another piece of news from our neighboring country, India, had also created confusion in Bangladesh. During that period, the local government in Jharkhand, India, issued an alert about the spread of the chicken H5N1 virus, or bird flu. However, the headlines (1, 2, 3) of the news reports in Bangladesh omitted India’s name. As a result, many individuals (1, 2, 3) had shared the news on Facebook, assuming it was an incident in Bangladesh leading to the news going viral on Facebook at that time.

A contrary picture has also been observed where news reports originating in Bangladesh have also created confusion. In March, Daily Jugantor published a news article with a misleading headline, stating  permission from the headmaster will be required in case a teacher decides to conceive. The news was actually related to a case of sexual harassment in a school in the Naogaon district of Bangladesh. However, the omission of the specific location in the headline led to readers thinking all school teachers in Bangladesh might need their principal’s permission thus causing panic among the readers. Many individuals shared the news on Facebook, mistaking it to be a  government directive.

A substantial portion of social media users exhibit a tendency to share news content relying solely on headlines. Referring to a research conducted by researchers at Columbia University, a report from The Washington Post stated that an alarming 59 percent of links shared on social media go unclicked. This indicates that a majority of users opt to redistribute news based solely on the headline, eschewing the actual content. Such a practice significantly contributes to the prevalent confusion observed in various scenarios.

“People are more willing to share an article than read it,” said the co-author of the study, Arnaud Legout, “This is typical of modern information consumption. People form an opinion based on a summary, or a summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper.”

Apart from that, the use of deceptive or clickbait headlines is also a tactic to allure users. Headlines within a news article carry unique significance, forming a reader’s initial insight into the content while also catching their attention. Research regarding clickbait by researchers from three prominent US universities underscores the heightened relevance of headlines in online media, given their direct impact on revenue. The research implies that media outlets are forsaking journalistic standards and opting for clickbaits to augment online revenue through heightened viewer engagement.

Sumon Rahman, founding editor of Factwatch, a fact-checking organization, said, “One of the reasons for the media to make such clickbait headlines is to attract readers and earn money. This has happened because of the culture of earning money from online monetization. The more people click, the more money comes in. That’s why online media uses such clickbait headlines to increase followers and shares. Even if it’s ordinary news, if you give a catchy headline, people will click and increase the opportunity income.”

Proximity assumes a paramount role in the landscape of journalism and news dissemination. The concept of ‘proximity’ meticulously considers the geographic relevance of news events to its audience. No event in another country excites people as much as an event in one’s own country does. Viewers are more likely to pay attention to incidents happening around them. Thus clickbait headlines are deliberately crafted to omit specific location details. In this context, Mr. Rahman said, “The reason behind news of Indian incidents being published in Bangladesh without any location being specified is the similarity of the context. Bangladesh often bears minimal resemblance to occurrences in Western countries, but the parallels with India are more pronounced. Given the social, cultural, and political affinities with our neighboring country, events transpiring in India tend to sow confusion among the people of Bangladesh. Due to the similar backdrop of the neighboring states, news can be easily assumed to be of Bangladesh when location is not specified.”

To circumvent these misleading or clickbait headlines, users can look out for certain things in the news report. These confusions can be avoided if a few things are taken into account before sharing news photocards. Fact-check expert Mr. Rahman stresses “media literacy of readers needs to be elevated. It is essential to grasp the essence of news beyond attention-grabbing headlines rather than assuming the accuracy based solely on captivating headlines. Flashy headlines frequently diverge from conventional news narratives. Readers should be conscious of that. Prioritizing awareness and comprehension before clicking or sharing will significantly curtail the confusion.”

“Another way could be to scrutinize the mainstream media. After seeing news or photocards of so-called news portals on Facebook, the audience should look for them in the mainstream media before sharing them. Major events are never ignored by the mainstream media. But if such incidents are only on Facebook or online portals and not in the mainstream media, then readers should be suspicious and verify the authenticity of the information.”