The Psychology Behind Fake News & Click Bait Ads

Communication & Psychology Theory, Content Marketing, Social Media

Click and someone makes money. It doesn’t matter if you quickly leave the site — the event has been logged. Unfortunately, that’s the incentive for creating clickbait. While we’re waiting for the industry to catch up, you can lower the amount of junk news you consume by learning to spot them before you click.

Tips to Spot ClickBait

In general, there are a few key areas of differentiation. First, the location of the story is important. If it’s deep in the footer of a webpage to encourage continued reading, it’s often a fake site. In fact, there is often a very small light logo for AdSense or a similar company right above it. On social media, the original posting account can tip you off. If they’re not a media outlet that you recognize, it’s likely not legitimate. 

Second, the headline will contain eye-catching adjectives like “Horrifying” or “Hilarious.” Legitimate news outlets try to stay away from this kind of commentary. 

Third, the date stamp will be missing or old. ClickBait tends to cycle in popularity over time — sometimes resurfacing after months or years. So, they make the stories appear fresh by removing any times and dates. 

Finally, you can familiarize yourself with the most popular fake news sites through Wikipedia, Snopes or sites like Real or Satire. You’ll start to notice the same few websites circulate a lot of the most popular stories.

Why You Click on Clickbait

Additionally, there are key communication and psychology principles that make your fingers itch to touch that link. Persuasive storytellers use these tactics unethically to manipulate you into engaging with their content. It’s so formulaic. Once you learn why they make you click, it’s easier to spot the fake stories.

They’re Extremely Engaging

A lot of fake news is simply engaging. The premise is funny, startling, or fascinating. They use eye-catching adjectives, colorful graphics, or mysterious documentation. This makes the reader stop and try to dig deeper to see what is going on. For example “Two People Commit Suicide at Obama’s new Home. See why inside.” tempts the viewer to learn more. Your day-to-day news isn’t nearly as interesting as this manipulative content.

They Set up a Straw Man

Certain media figures always draw ire for their controversial views. Often, you’ll see content that takes their comments out of context, or sometimes making something up, to generate shock. Basically, they give the impression of taking down their opponents argument by refuting something that their opponent never actually said.

You often see clickbait use this tactic. For example, there was a claim going around that Colin Kapernick was lobbying to remove the National Anthem from Football games. Since Kapernick is a polarizing figure, for protesting police violence by kneeling during the national anthem, this claim catches people’s attention. They click — even if it’s not true.

Also see False Attribution and Fallacy of Quoting out of Context.

They Appeal to Emotion

Strong emotional touchpoints dominate fake news. For example, an article claiming, “A provision of New York’s Reproductive Health Act states that “red ribbon nurses” will kill babies who are abandoned after birth” spread quickly. It capitalized on the fact that abortion opponents fear NY’s new law, to the level that they will click on an obvious parody site.

Common tactics include:

  • Fear 
  • Flattery 
  • Pity
  • Ridicule 
  • Spite
  • Judgmental language
  • Wishful thinking

They Exploit your Cultural Identity

“President Trump banned the song “Feliz Navidad” from the White House” claimed a viral fake news story — drawing a ton of engagement from all sides. Some people loved the idea if they sided with Trump’s culture wars and stances on immigration. On the flipside, it seemed believably petty people who already thought Trump is unhinged. Clickbait like this shows the sweet spot in exploiting cultural identity — defined as how a person’s sense of belonging to a group reaffirms itself.

They Negotiate Your Social Identity

Social competition allows clickbait to leverage your need to succeed within your ingroup and marginalize the outgroup. The story “RED-HAIRED PEOPLE AND ORANGUTANS ORIGINATE FROM COMMON ANCESTOR, SAYS NEW STUDY” from worldnewsdailyreport.com, plays to the human need to establish a hierarchy. 

If you’re not a ginger, the assertion allows you to establish your superiority (however dubiously). This tactic triggers people by appealing to their need to put someone down and lift themselves up. (I’m talking about racism, sexism… basically all the prejudices here.)

They Overwhelm You

We like to think that people make rational decisions by weighing the facts presented to them — and it can be true. However, the Elaboration Likelihood Model posits that persuasive messaging relies on distracting people (the peripheral route vs the central, rational route) to force them into an irrational decision. This actually works best when people have a low investment in the decision.

So much going on…

From random, false criminal reports to dubious health claims, people have a hard time processing the information because they are bombarded with so much of it, often right alongside accurate headlines.

They Rely on the Power of Groups

“Psychologists Urge Folks to be Friends with those who Swear a lot” gained popularity because people enjoyed the confirmation. It’s not uncommon for people to swear, even if it is taboo in certain settings. So, it’s natural to want to justify the behavior — especially if it lumps you into a group now attributed with positive attributes. From there, powerful group behaviors follow like bandwagoning, crowd psychology, and characteristics of herd behavior.

What Makes You Click?

I’d like to hear about the types of headlines that you just can’t resist. Do you fall for celebrity death hoaxes? Do you jump on food scares? Tell me about the headlines that tempt you and why you think they work.

Additional Reading

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