The vicious effect of clickbait information

Introduction

Over the last two decades, the internet has revolutionised the way in which we access and consume information. What would take weeks of research in libraries is now available at the click of a button within microseconds.  No doubt this kind of access has driven progress in orders of magnitude unimaginable earlier. The dark side, however, is the pernicious effect of information overload. Especially, data that has no inherent process of verification, validation, and authentication. Add to it the wide-spread practice of click-bait in mass and social media, there’s your recipe for disaster.

A major portion of the general public’s media consumption is online – either social media or WhatsApp. These are the primary contributors spreading ignorance.

Occasionally, I succumb to temptation, read articles, and watch videos that lure through click-bait strategies. The aftereffects are usually fury or agitation. I had a similar experience earlier this week. I was greatly tempted to leave a comment with my piece of mind. I stopped myself, decided to use it as a learning moment and share my observations and insights here in this article.

Types of click-bait

Over the last few years, I have observed some common features in such articles and videos. Let me examine them one by one.

Unfair comparison:

Comparing dissimilar things and drawing up a convoluted conclusion is inherently flawed, however, extremely popular.

Examples:

  • Different activities – one is teaching how to calculate, and one is calculating – the comparison is drawn on the speed of calculation.
  • Different situations – two students talking in two different languages about the same topic with confidence – the comparison is drawn on the competence of the students.

Quoting out of context:

There is heavy use of jargon to deceive people of apparent authenticity.

Examples:

  • Using the word ‘research’ – the article describes the positive effect of using an obscure oil for hair growth, backed by ‘research’ – on digging deeper, the ‘research’ turns out to be that a group of 50 people in a single city have used it.
  • Using the phrase ‘proved by experiments’ – there is a claim that eating some exotic seeds once every day gets rid of pimples – turns out the ‘experiment’ was with a group of 20 college students in a remote town – conducted over 10 days.

Exaggerated and irrelevant generalisation:

This is the worst of them all, using one data point and extrapolating it beyond the scope of available data.

When a sound logic is involved, this extrapolation is acceptable. This method is used in scientific experiments. Even when the science is sound, sometimes the exaggeration could be misleading. I had written earlier on this topic.

However, when no Science is involved and only luring tactics are employed, sound logic is a far cry.

Examples:

  • Two individuals (one man and one woman) are competing in a game of stacking cards – the man wins – the title will be ‘Men are better than women in logical thinking’.
  • Two groups of playing children (from different countries) are shown side by side – one group is barefoot and scantily clad (perhaps it is summer in a tropical country) – the title will be ‘How poverty in so and so country affects children’.

These are a few of the many flaws one could imagine. The ability to morph and modify media to misrepresent images and videos is a whole other can of worms; beyond the scope of this article.

Why is this analysis important?

Generally, I have a pet-peeve about irrational information on media. Specifically, because I am an educator. My students and children are continually exposed to this kind of information on the internet. They watch it, comment on it, share it, and spread the nonsense. Not only children, grown-ups too. If any of you readers are victims of meaningless WhatsApp forwards, you know the lure of the forward/share buttons. This is a dangerous practice, especially when it comes to medical advice. I have seen too many frivolous forwards relating to medical care that are greatly misleading.

One could argue that as long as gullible people consume such information, these will prevail. It is true enough, however, there is a thin line between being gullible and being vulnerable. Our children are vulnerable, our parents and grandparents are vulnerable. As the bridge between these generations, it is our responsibility to educate them.

Well, to children and grown-ups alike, here are my two cents of unsolicited advice. Whenever you encounter such videos and articles, ask yourselves these questions.

  • Who has shared it? Is it someone you know and trust to share the genuinely helpful information?
  • Who has created it? Can you authenticate their veracity?
  • What is the content trying to tell you?
  • Is it a technical topic that you can understand without consulting someone else?
  • Does the content make logical sense?
  • Is the presented interpretation sensible?
  • If there are comments, are they about the content or about randomly chosen destructive topics – like nationality, religion, race, etc.?
  • Does it provide you a learning opportunity?
  • Is it harmless and humorous, can you simply laugh and let it go?
  • Is it worth sharing with anyone else?

Summing up

I have learnt and practised over time to reduce the consumption of media to a large extent. I am highly selective about what I read and what I watch. More so, with what I share.

I urge you all to reflect on this. It would serve us all well to curate the amount of media we consume and spread. I would greatly appreciate to hear more thoughts on this, please share your views in the comments section.

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Dr. Soumya Sreehari

Dr. Soumya Sreehari

Co-Founder and Specialist at NumberNagar®
Dr. Soumya is an Educator and Researcher with a passion for reading, writing and teaching. She holds a PhD in Chemistry (Michigan Technological University, Houghton, USA). Her experience as a student and a teacher in two countries led her to pursue a career in Education. Her core work at NumberNagar® involves quality delivery of product and services at every stage of the customer life cycle. She leads the team that makes this happen. Previously she has taught Chemistry to first year undergraduate students at Michigan Technological University. She is a voracious reader and challenges herself to read 50 books every year.
Dr. Soumya Sreehari

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