Maheen Behrana explores how a broken business model incentivises news outlets to distort facts

I was recently sucked in by a Mail Online article that ran with the headline: ‘EXCLUSIVE: Jonathan Van-Tam Went Out for a Curry on the Same Day that Boris Johnson told Londoners to Avoid Restaurants Due to COVID Risk – Then Claimed the £21.77 Meal on the Taxpayer’.

Images of England’s Deputy Chief Medical Officer on a boozy night out with the lads were foremost in my mind when I clicked on the piece. But having read it, I realised I had fallen foul of clickbait.

It seems that, after a long day working with the Government to respond to the Coronavirus pandemic, Van-Tam had popped into an Indian restaurant – alone – and had quickly eaten his dinner before returning to work. He ate there out of necessity, not out of a cavalier attitude to the new guidance – which was, at that point, just guidance.

I wondered what the Mail Online was trying to achieve with this article. Was it trying to create a new ‘Dominic Cummings’ moment, or was it merely trying to undermine the scientists calling for stricter lockdown rules? Regardless, the headline suggested that Van-Tam had been involved in a flagrant breach of the rules – a claim totally opposed to reality.

Clickbait – for those unaware – is when a publication deliberately exaggerates the drama or gravity of a story in its headline. Some types are obvious and benign – BuzzFeed quizzes promising to tell us which of Harry Potter’s horcruxes we correspond with, for example.

But the same cannot be said of all clickbait. When this same strategy is applied to news, sensational headlines can mislead millions of people about subjects that are of fundamental personal and national importance.

For example, the fervently pro-Brexit Daily Express repeatedly uses the phrase “EU on the BRINK” to begin many of its headlines related to the European Union. One recent example was: ‘EU on the BRINK: Boris Defiance of ‘Bullying’ Plot Paves Way for Brexit Dominoes to Fall’.

The headline attempts to portray the EU as an autocratic overlord set to be toppled by a pro-democracy movement inspired by Brexit. Yet, the article itself provides no evidence to substantiate the claim that the EU is “on the brink” of anything in particular. Indeed, as Sian Norris has recently observed in Byline Times, the example of Brexit has deterred other nations from lobbying to leave the EU.

In fact, the Daily Express is a bit gung-ho with the phrase. French President Emmanuel Macron has been “on the brink”, as has Labour Leader Keir Starmer. The Daily Express deploys this language because it is dramatic – suggesting the imminent demise of something or someone – tempting readers to click on the article to find out more.

It is obviously unsurprising that publishers want people to click on their content – but why is clickbait such a pervasive strategy used by publications, and why are the headlines so ludicrous?

Well, like many other newspapers – especially tabloids – the Daily Express relies heavily on digital advertising to make money. Amid plummeting print revenues, exacerbated during the Coronavirus pandemic, publishers increasingly rely on generating millions of online page views – channelling readers towards a super-abundance of flashing, singing, browser-breaking adverts.

Thus, publishers have a greater incentive to generate clicks than to report factually and accurately. Truth doesn’t pay the bills.

Consider this headline from the Daily Mail, which begins ‘How Labour Turned London Into a Foreign City’; or this one, in which Janet Street-Porter laments: ‘I’m Not a Down and Out and I Can’t Afford £40,000 to Fly to Dubai so how CAN I Get a Vaccine?’

Both are written with shock-factor in mind, embedding prejudice as if it is fact. A few local councils have indeed prioritised homeless people for vaccinations, but this has not been a policy implemented across the country. Yet Janet Street-Porter’s phrasing suggests that homeless people are granted too much. And the racism is blatant in the headline that describes London as a “foreign city”.

The ultimate problem comes when these headlines accumulate in collective consciousness. When this happens, they are not harmless or simply mischievous – they change how people feel and act.

It is not far-fetched to suggest that vicious clickbait content around ‘foreigners’ from the right-wing tabloid media has contributed to the general public’s indifference to the plight of refugees or to the hostility towards immigrants – feeding into the Brexit vote. Nor is it unlikely that their demonisation of Muslims has contributed to the rise in Islamophobia in Britain.

Ultimately, money makes the news go round – and this is worrying. Information has become a commodity that has a higher value if it warps reality. Principle, integrity and editorial standards are subordinated to corporate need and greed.

Words talk, but money talks louder.

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Our leading investigations include: empire & the culture warBrexit, crony contractsRussian interferencethe Coronavirus pandemicdemocracy in danger, and the crisis in British journalism. We also introduce new voices of colour in Our Lives Matter.

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