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Sensationalism and the spread of ‘news’

| Senior Forum Editor

Every morning, one of the first things I do is open Facebook. Scrolling past post after post promoting a product or viewpoint has almost become a hobby of mine. Refusing to click on every flashy headline feels like accident avoidance: Since I know the information contained is at the very least sensationalized—and at its most extreme an outright lie—it’s easy to grow apathetic. As long as I don’t click, I’m OK. But once that clickbait becomes personal, it’s an entirely different story.

Every few years, an article circulates around the profiles of people from my high school titled “Welcome to the most backwards town in America.” For some background, my hometown, Kennesaw, Ga., is perhaps best-known for its law requiring every head of household within the city limits to own a gun. Yes, you read that right. And no, it isn’t some ancient relic from the Revolutionary War era (in fact, it was established in 1982). The video, at just one minute and 17 seconds long, makes quick work of constructing a grand hyperbole about the supposed redneck, gun-wielding cowboys I call my neighbors. And even though everyone from my town knows the video is a misrepresentation of everyday life in sleepy Kennesaw, they can’t hold themselves back from commenting on the video with things like “welcome to the most backwards ‘news’ source in America” or the less-nuanced “f— this video and whoever made it.”

Merriam-Webster defines clickbait as “something (such as a headline) designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink especially when the link leads to content of dubious value or interest.” Propagators of this reactionary “journalism” know exactly why they’re doing what they do: to generate backtalk to whatever it is they’re choosing to post and promote at the time. We’ve fallen into a trap, with writers and news organizations struggling to climb the podium and reign supreme in the never-ending race for the most clicks and most page views by using sensationalist headlines and buzzwords.

In the current political climate, I often find myself (sadly) hoping that the headlines aren’t true and that they are in fact another product of the clickbait machine. Sometimes, it even feels like the quotes in the story are so ridiculous that they function as clickbait in and of themselves. If it takes one or two flashy words to make someone read the news every once in a while, fine—but not if it takes away from the truth of the story. Several times a day, I find myself pulling down the top of my Twitter newsfeed, constantly refreshing for new posts and stories. The constant churning of the 24-hour news cycle lets meaningful, impactful stories get lost in the shuffle. After a while, they all blur together.

And the name-calling and argot—especially in political writing—aren’t just a shout into the void. They have meaning, not just to the person something might be directed at, but for all those who read and consume an interview or article, and, in some cases, anyone with a social media account. Take an average Student Life tweet, for example, from December 2017. A simple link to a Scene article with one retweet and one like, both from the same account that has nine followers. In the grand scheme of the massive powerhouse that is the Twitter community, this is pretty measly in terms of user engagement. But, this one tweet received 1,800 “impressions,” meaning 1,800 people saw it on Twitter in some way or another.

For every time President Donald Trump boasts “fake news” in reaction to a mass shooting or natural disaster, another profile on social media crafts a new conspiracy theory or stretched version of the truth.
In the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. last month,where 17 innocent teenagers lost their lives, countless people on my Facebook timeline (Full disclosure: mostly people from Kennesaw—the video is wrong about a lot but not about the extreme levels of conservatism.) shared posts promoting the debunked “theory” that many of the survivors were “crisis actors”—people who travel from state to state posing as victims of crimes. These posts, crafted by acrimonious (or possibly spam or bot) pages, feed into the hysteria surrounding hot-button issues like gun control. Instead of tackling the issue at hand, they attack those suffering in the first place.

Not only do I feel bad for those the posts are targeted at, but a part of me feels bad for each and every person who shared it while wholeheartedly believing that the lie is true. Imagine being so delusional that you actually accuse a traumatized child of lying about the very trauma that caused them to be in their public position in the first place. To an incredibly lesser extent, those who share the posts are victims, too: victims at the hands of the senseless, immoral pages that post for the sole purpose of making money and generating likes.

Every comment on the video about my town, as well-meaning as the commenter may be, is only feeding into the machine. Resisting the spread of literal “fake news” at its source is the first step to establishing the standards we as consumers should demand from our news agencies. Acknowledging technology as an ubiquitous force for change necessitates a reworking of our ideals as a nation.

Demanding an end to the incessant name-calling and finger-pointing in media obviously isn’t going to eliminate those fulfilling their roles as the dregs of the internet. Those people, as bad as they are, will always exist. There will always be another Pizzagate, but if it’s possible to drastically limit the reach of those theories, what’s the downside?

  • David Lieder

    If you were honest and really researching this topic, progressives and far-left groups have many more false conspiracy theories circulating these days. The principal of Democracy is that we discuss these things. Censorship is not an answer. But I think properly researching your subject is. The real problems are double standards where you trash Trump but Bill Cosby is ignored, Bill Clinton is a popular and forgiven violent rapist, Hillary is okay even though she enabled Bill’s rapes and harassed the victims, and all the hypocritical liberals who protect each other in their crimes are tolerated. Conservatives are attacked and lied about and then media retractions never make it to the front page, because most media is promoting trash journalism these days. Trashing Trump with lies is big business and drives up newspaper sales and subscriptions among rabid liberals who really don’t care much about truth, in the end.