Widgets Magazine

Clickbait and conscientiousness

Clickbait is a plague – inciting distraction, fueling procrastination and provoking frustration (particularly when the article turns out much sparser than what its grand title suggested).

According to a survey of 53 Stanford students, 96.2 percent of Stanford students encounter clickbait articles on the Internet at least once per day. Over the course of a year, then, the typical student scrolls through hundreds, if not thousands, of articles that offer everything from supposedly science-backed relationship advice to leaked celebrity secrets “you never knew.”

Clickbait is indeed an interesting phenomenon. Paradoxically, it is widely hated but still frequently read. The survey results indicate that students tend to overestimate the frequency with which they read clickbait, which may mean that clickbait has an unusual potential for disseminating false news in the form of memorable sound bites. Clickbait is quite literally a phenomenon that cannot be ignored – a phenomenon whose implications are silent yet powerful.

The first paradox of clickbait is the contrast between its overwhelmingly negative connotation and the apparent irresistibility of clicking. When asked to describe clickbait in a single word, most students responded with simply “annoying.” In longer elaborations, the vast majority of students wrote that “there’s too much of it” – a theme echoed by an overall 2.1/5 enjoyment rating by survey respondents.

Interestingly, however, 52.8 percent of students also responded that they clicked on clickbait articles more than 15 times per day. In other words, despite the clear distaste for clickbait, students feel compelled to read the articles anyway.

One other detail is worth noting: While over half of the respondents state that they opened clickbait articles more than 15 times daily, only 22.6 percent of respondents stated that they saw more than 15 articles each day. Indeed, 20.8 percent reported seeing only one to three clickbait articles per day. In other words, some students see only three articles but click on 15 – an indication that students are likely overestimating the amount of clickbait that they consume.

The numbers, of course, cannot establish a causal relationship – any number of independent variables can compel someone to click on an article despite a strong dislike for the content. However, given that students tend to overestimate the number of articles they read but underestimate the number of articles they see, the data may indicate that students are clicking mindlessly, without registering how many articles they’ve read. They then assume, at the end of each day, that they’ve read “many.”

The tendency to click without thinking gives clickbait articles a dangerous amount of power. Students may click on an article with a radical political claim, register its exaggerations as fact, but later forget that the information was sourced from a clickbait article. As a result, clickbait articles may be uniquely powerful in disseminating fake news without consequence.

Indeed, as one survey respondent wrote, “It’s really not that much of a problem … until I realize how much of it actually turns into fake news. Things like ‘See which character you are on … ’ are not as much as a problem to me as ‘You won’t believe what Bernie Sanders just said.’”

Combine clickbait articles with wildly different content for liberals and conservatives, and the result is a recipe for political polarization.

Thus, clickbait articles, however innocuous and however annoying, may have impacts far beyond a few wasted minutes. Indeed, clickbait articles bait more than our attention – they bait our subconscious.

When reading clickbait, therefore, we ought to account for its effects by being more conscientious, such as by verifying the information through another source.

As one respondent wrote, “On the rare occasion that there’s something in clickbait that I’m genuinely curious about, I Google it to read about it elsewhere.”


Contact Xinlan Emily Hu at xehu ‘at’ stanford.edu.