"Can You Believe This!?": Misleading Language in Clickbait

Every person who spends any amount of time online on news or entertainment websites has encountered clickbait even if not always being aware of it. Clickbait has its most common form as compelling headlines or images which elicit people’s curiosity, leading them to read an article, or watch a video, interacting with some piece of content. This kind of charming title or image is usually exploited to tempt people to follow a link and find out more about the news. Clickbait is nowadays a pivotal technique in the online world, as it drives the generation of advertising revenue, making a potential client interact with the site and encounter on-page offers. According to Biyani et al. (2016), clickbait is meant to take readers to “low quality content with misleading titles” (p. 95). Nonetheless, the deception that clickbait usually produces (as people find out the original title does not correspond to interesting content), does not stop readers from wandering from “clicking through the headlines” as said in Pengnate (2016, p. 7). What is undoubtable, is that clickbait works: Scott (2022, p. 128) sustains that “We know we are being clickbaited, we recognize the signs, and yet we continue to click.”


ami simboli social media
Figure 1. According to Potthast (2018, p. 1506) clickbait is "one of the pests of social media."

Most of the revenue of online news media outlets is generated from the clicks readers make. These days we can count a growing number of such outlets, which are therefore forced to compete with each other for the readers’ attention. Article headlines are now the uttermost resource to get it: as exposed by Chackraborty (2016, p 1) “such headlines are known as clickbaits.” Clickbait contents are usually prone to deal with sensationalist, populist as well as light-hearted contents. Clark (2014) points out that the kind of content clickbait articles tend to present is usually referred to “sex, celebrity, and miracle cures.” Common clickbait content is however not only exploited to make something clickbait: it is often encountered in tabloids as well. In fact, the variety of clickbait material does not limit itself to populism and sensationalism, but it also tends to directly relate to the readers in some way. That is the case of rapid quizzes and tests which usually promise to tell us insights into our personality, preferences, and character. The main difference between clickbait links and all other kinds of weblinks is that the formers are made with the sole intention of being clicked on. In other words, clickbait links are not intended to lead people to any further content. Considering things from another point of view, it is useful to know that contemporary websites are construed to maximize readers’ engagement and clicks (thus generating advertising revenue). As explained by Koechley (2012) “we want our content to go viral–and writing a brilliant headline is the easiest way to make that happen.” One could say, then, that clickbait-wise the “first impression is the last impression” principle plays a crucial role.


As for powerful headlines, the article by Kuiken et al. (2017) tried to explore the reasons why applying textual and stylistic clickbait features is capable of increasing click-through rates. The study showed that applying most clickbait features (such as whether the headline is formulated as a question or not, the use of possessive pronouns and negative words) to journal articles leads to an actual increase in the number of clicks. Such findings allow us to consider how the role of headlines themselves has changed, along with the current use people make of newspaper articles. Nowadays, people preferably consume articles via the internet rather than from physical newspapers. Therefore, the headline currently plays a prominent part in catching the readers’ attention and in enticing them to click and interact with the article. According to Ifantidou (2009), headlines are viewed as “riveting short-cut to the contents of newspapers,” contributing to “summarize and attract attention to the full-text article.” (p. 1) In doing so, headlines direct the readers’ focus on a certain aspect of the overall argument, thus representing the articles they introduce in an incomplete or inadequate way (Althaus, 2001). It has also been shown that headlines do not help the readers’ comprehension (Leon, 1997), nor do they convey fundamental information (Smith, 1999). In the contribution by Dor (2003) we can find a complete taxonomy which outlines the copy-editing process in headline production. Headlines should respect properties such as being as short as possible, clear, easy, unambiguous, interesting, containing little information, not presupposing information potentially unknown to the readers and framing the story in an appropriate fashion (Dor, 2003). Thus, a good-written headline can change an article’s appeal to the public, as it is the outmost face readers can see of it.



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Figure 3. Recognizing clickbait headlines is useful to avoid deceptive contents.

A common opening statement that is usually found in clickbaits is a sentence such as “This is why you should read this article,” which apparently makes no sense if read alone. Nonetheless, this kind of structure is the product of a precise writing technique, which is referred to as “forward-referring technique” (see Blom, 2015). This specific writing style aims at eliciting the readers’ curiosity by inducing anticipation so that the readers are easily convinced to click and interact with the article. Forward-reference usually occurs in two forms in headlines, namely discourse deixis and cataphora. As explained by Yang (2011, p. 129), forward-referring discourse deixis consists of a discourse item (e.g., a demonstrative pronoun as “this”) that is “used to refer to a forthcoming portion of the discourse.” The study by Blom (2015) further indicates that if on the one hand newspapers headlines usually prefer content words (those which convey objective meaning, as opposed to “function words,” e.g., conjunctions, pronouns, etc.) referring to persons or locations, on the other clickbait headlines tend to include function words as well. Therefore, clickbait headlines result to be longer than newspaper headlines, even if the average length per word appears to be shorter. Arguably, the same study reveals that the sentiment analysis comparing clickbait and non-clickbait headlines showed a significant fraction between the two groups. Clickbaits usually exploit words having “very-positive sentiments” (also known as “hyperbolic words”). Such eye-catching words are selected as they elicit a stronger urge in readers to follow the clickbait itself. Finally, punctuation is also strategically used in clickbaits: informal punctuation patterns such as !?, …, ***, !!! are commonly present (and almost never used in non-clickbait headlines).


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Figure 4. Clickbaits represent the easiest way of attracting readers' attention.

The use of clickbaits as a revenue generating means strongly relies on strategically formed headlines. Given that headlines represent a primary way of getting a potential readers' attention, they ended up obtaining a new, powerful function. Clickbait is now becoming an independent writing style, which is specifically used to sensationalize even void content. As seen, many stylistic features can be linked to the clickbait phenomenon, having a significant impact on the performance of a headline (namely, how much attention it gathers). As Scott (2021) significantly points out, the deep functioning of clickbaits lies in the apparent gap in readers’ knowledge, which arises their curiosity. The reader is by these means driven to expect the article to fill the supposed knowledge gap by clicking on the landing site. Each headline is thus made up to create and simultaneously solve such an information gap, which feels impossible to resist.

Bibliographical references

Althaus, S. L., Edy, J. A., & Phalen, P. F. (2001). Using Substitutes for Full-Text News Stories in Content Analysis: Which Text Is Best? American Journal of Political Science, 45(3), 707. https://doi.org/10.2307/2669247

Biyani, P., Tsioutsiouliklis, K., & Blackmer, J. (2016). “8 Amazing Secrets for Getting More Clicks”: Detecting Clickbaits in News Streams Using Article Informality (Vol. 30, Issue 1). Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI). https://doi.org/10.1609/aaai.v30i1.9966

Blom, J. N., & Hansen, K. R. (2015). Click bait: Forward-reference as lure in online news headlines. Journal of Pragmatics, 76, 87–100. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2014.11.010

Chakraborty, A., Paranjape, B., Kakarla, S., & Ganguly, N. (2016, August). Stop clickbait: Detecting and preventing clickbaits in online news media. In 2016 IEEE/ACM international conference on advances in social networks analysis and mining (ASONAM) (pp. 9-16). IEEE. arXiv:1610.09786v1

Clark, R. P. (2014, November 24). Top 8 Secrets of How to Write an Upworthy Headline. Poynter. https://www.poynter.org/reporting-editing/2014/top-8-secrets-of-how-to-write-an-upworthy-headline/

Dor, D. (2003). On newspaper headlines as relevance optimizers. Journal of Pragmatics, 35(5), 695–721. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0378-2166(02)00134-0

Ifantidou, E. (2009). Newspaper headlines and relevance: Ad hoc concepts in ad hoc contexts. Journal of Pragmatics, 41(4), 699–720. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.pragma.2008.10.016

Koechley, P. (2012, May 19). Why The Title Matters More Than The Talk - Upworthy Insider. Medium. https://blog.upworthy.com/why-the-title-matters-more-than-the-talk-867d08b75c3b

Kuiken, J., Schuth, A., Spitters, M., & Marx, M. (2017). Effective Headlines of Newspaper Articles in a Digital Environment. Digital Journalism, 5(10), 1300–1314. https://doi.org/10.1080/21670811.2017.1279978

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Loewenstein, G. (1994). The psychology of curiosity: A review and reinterpretation. Psychological Bulletin, 116(1), 75–98. https://doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.116.1.75

Pengnate, S. F. (2016). Measuring emotional arousal in clickbait: Eye-tracking approach. In Twenty-second Americas Conference on Information Systems, (pp. 1-9). San Diego

Potthast, M., Gollub, T., Komlossy, K., Schuster, S., Wiegmann, M., Fernandez, E. P. G., ... & Stein, B. (2018). Crowdsourcing a large corpus of clickbait on twitter. In Proceedings of the 27th international conference on computational linguistics (pp. 1498-1507).

Scott, K. (2021). Pragmatics Online (Language and Digital Media) (1st ed.). Routledge.

Smith, E. J. (1999). Leadlines May Be Better than Traditional Headlines. Newspaper Research Journal, 20(1), 55–64. https://doi.org/10.1177/073953299902000105

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Visual sources

Cover Image. Unknown. (2017). Birght ClickBait 1800 [Digital Illustration]. Retrieved from https://www.ninjamarketing.it/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/Bright-ClickBait-1800.jpg


Figure 1. Unknown. (n.d.). Engagement Baiting Alternatives [Digital illustration]. Retrieved from https://ideas.capacityinteractive.com/hubfs/Blog%20Posts/Blog%202018/Blog%202018.02%20Engagement%20Baiting%20Alternatives/Blog%202018.02%20Engagement%20Baiting%20Alternatives-02.png


Figure 2. Unknown. (n.d.). Clickbait. [Digital illustration]. Retrieved from https://static.semrush.com/cdn-cgi/image/width=1010/blog/uploads/media/5c/8b/5c8bda555a098d7a1a905eb993caa8c6/clickbait.png


Figure 3. Unknown. (2019). Clickbait. [Digital illustration]. Retrieved from https://www.bewesrl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/07/Clickbait.png


Figure 4. Unknown. (2019). mousetrap-e1588655284340. Freepik. [Digital illustration]. Retrieved from https://www.neurowebcopywriting.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/mousetrap-e1588655284340.png



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Antonio Verolino

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