How to Balance Your Digital Diet

By Alex Fink and Jamie Bussin

We’ve all seen that ridiculous headline: ie. ‘Reverse Aging Now, In 3 Easy Steps’. Only to be shunted to a dubious website making unsubstantiated claims, touting questionable products or perhaps worse. Clickbait is an online headline that makes readers want to click on a hyperlink to a particular webpage that will undoubtedly underwhelm.

The problem, according to Silicon Valley expat Alex Fink, is that clickbait works all too well. There’s value to companies in getting eyeballs to their site. Online content is mostly monetized using ads, and ads mostly pay per click or per view. And so, clickbait proliferates and crowds out online content that educates, engages and informs readers. I discussed this issue and what we can do about it with Alex on episode #273 of The Tonic Talk Show/Podcast. This is a digest of that conversation.

Why is there so much clickbait?  Bottom line, it’s easy and it works. Opinions and hyperbolic headlines, rather than facts, generate stronger emotional reactions in readers and facilitate clicks. According to Alex, “Fake news is prevalent because it is much easier to create a fake story than it is to source a real one. And if you are rewarded just by clicks and views, then, as a journalist or as an editor, you would rather do the thing that requires less effort to generate the same outcome.”

The collateral effect of clickbait: Leaving aside the issue that clickbait headlines are intrinsically misleading, there are other spin-off effects. News outlets have been facing the incentive of just chasing clicks, and views have so much junk in the online information ecosystem. There is so much junk in the system that users are spending most of their mental energy just trying to filter out the obvious junk. That leaves a lot less bandwidth for critical thinking and for actually evaluating an argument on the merits and trying to figure out whether it’s true or false. You can’t expect people to be critical thinkers if they’re just bombarded with junk all the time. 

How do you counter clickbait? Alex’s idea is to create an aggregation platform that filters out the clickbait. Like nutrition labels found on foods, he proposes labels for online content.  Instead of describing how much fat or sugar is in a food product – the online label would identify the nature of the content of an article/site. According to Alex, articles can be filtered “…by identifying small elements that are well-defined, like is this an attention-grabbing headline, or is this written in subjective language with a lot of loud adjectives?” AI models do the heavy lifting – by sorting through the massive volume of articles for those kinds of elements. Then the elements are combined into a score delineating quality.

Next steps: Objectively identifying clickbait is valuable and important. But in order to eliminate it, publishers need to be incentivized to create better quality information. Alex explains how this might work. “First of all, we need to show that some portion of the population cares about what they put in their brain. So, again, to use the food analogy, here you can think about organic food. The reason you find organic food, even in Walmart, is, first of all, some farmers, markets or Whole Foods or other higher quality chains showed the world that people are willing to pay for organics. We’re trying to do the same thing. We created a platform that right now has about 90,000 active users, but it’s growing pretty quickly. Once we get to a substantial number of users, that is a signal to the world that people care, and that advertisers should care, that content creators should care, and that distributors of content like search engines and social media should start caring, otherwise they will be penalized for not having those quality filters on.”