Tag Archives: source credibility

The Lure and False Authority of ‘Click Bait’


We have evidence that internet users are less interested in tracking the provenance of a story than consumers of straight print media.

It comes as no surprise to any thoughtful consumer that most media make money by attracting eyeballs for the ads they have strung around their content.  In print media this is the role of display advertising.  In conventional television the clusters of ads that interrupt program content have the same function.  Even so, in the large scale public migration to internet sites many consumers of “new” media seem not to have noticed the close proximity of genuine news to the qualitatively different “sponsored content” nearby.  Sometimes these “stories” at the end of a section feature an interesting picture, the promise of a shocking revelation, and always another new set of pages that will pull us in to see even more ads. These “news” items are sometimes labeled “Promoted Stories” or content “From Our Partners.”

On one particular day the popular website The Daily Beast had sponsored articles at the end of real journalistic pieces from a range of self-interested groups. One “article” entitled “Do This Every Time You Turn on Your PC” was really selling “Scanguard,” which is supposed to speed up balky computers. Another “article,” “How to Fix Your Fatigue” was click bait from a food supplement “doctor.” And an ancestry research service was embedded in a third “news story” entitled “What did People Eat in the 1800s?

Sometimes this clutter of “advertorial” content has no appeal.  But we may find it irresistible to take a time-wasting detour baited by headlines like “You won’t believe how the actors in ‘Gilmore Girls’ have changed.”  At the risk of giving away my Calvinist/Methodist roots, all this spontaneous grazing pulls us away from more purposeful tasks.  As if we needed it, a writing course at the University of Pennsylvania is actually called “Wasting Time on the Internet.”

As things go, advertising masquerading as news probably doesn’t qualify as a crime against humanity. And there can be little question that news sites of all sorts need the revenue stream of advertising that allowed print media to prosper for well over a century.  But  a problem remains:  paid web content is now melded so seamlessly into the mix of stories offered on many sites that we may fail to notice that we have passed from the hands of editors and journalists into a strategic marketing world dominated by advertisers and copywriters.

In greater numbers Americans don’t consider the self-serving nature of much online content.

This doesn’t pose a serious problem to a savvy reader.  But we have more evidence that internet users are less interested in tracking the provenance of a story than consumers of straight print media. In greater numbers Americans don’t consider the self-serving nature of online content, even when solid expertise and neutrality should weigh heavily on what we “know,” especially if we are researching subjects as consequential as health information.  This lack of critical insight makes Americans a bit less intelligent, turning us into better consumers than citizens..

Add in another factor that makes the problem of accepting low-credibility sources even more unsettling. Traditionally our memory for content outlasts our memory for where it came from. This so-called “sleeper effect” means there is a time in our cognitive life when we are more likely to remember a stray fact or assertion than the source that it came from.  You know the effect if you have ever heard yourself say “I don’t remember where I saw it, but I do remember seeing . . .”  It’s at this point that the paid flacking of click bait creates the greatest opportunity for cognitive mischief.  It’s content outlasts what should be reasonable suspicions about its fictions and limitations.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu

The Confidence to Not Know

Q A imageOf course experts are paid to know their stuff.  We want them to have answers. But sometimes they need to allow complexity to have its way.

Communication is about trust in a source.  That trust is typically revealed in how individuals address common situations.  Consider two tests. The responses to both reveal how comfortable a person is in their own skin.

The simplest measure is how a person addresses servers in a restaurant.  Odd, I know.  But think about it.  It’s a useful test of an individual’s character to observe how they treat a total stranger in a subordinate position. It can be pleasant to discover that a new lunch companion shows a basic regard for a staffer’s personal feelings.  When a patron has no interest in the other, it suggests that they may be so locked into their own world that they can’t bother with even basic forms of human acknowledgement.

But there’s an even better marker of character, one that is especially useful for judging a person’s professional credibility.  The test involves noticing how persons handle questions that draw them to the outer borders of their knowledge. My theory is that the more secure a person is, the more they will not feel compelled to answer every question.  There’s irony here:  It’s sometimes the case that the person who doesn’t have an answer actually has more to tell us than the one who does.

Here’s what I mean. Watch talk shows, or a typical panel of experts brought in after a “breaking news” story to speculate on possible causes. This was the case after the March 2014 disappearance of a Malaysia Airlines airliner after departing from Kuala Lumpur’s airport.  It disappeared somewhere in the Southern Ocean, still without a clear reason.  It’s rare to see a guest with the confidence to make the observation that they–and probably everyone else–cannot yet know why it disappeared.  And there’s positive value in withholding an answer.  It’s the same for a psychologist being queried about the motives of a mass murderer, or a professor like myself teaching a course (“Theories of Persuasion”) that attempts to predict human behavior. We too rarely use the  option to acknowledge the limits of our understanding.

A person’s willingness to exercise this choice says a lot about the quality of their personal confidence. Like good diagnosticians, the most reliable experts don’t need to feign perfect knowledge to feel comfortable about their professional standing. An unjustifiable compulsion to respond to all queries can become a fraudulent kind of performed competence.

Using this measure, the presence of false certainty seems to especially infect experts who host call-in talks shows. Topics may range from gardening to child-rearing.  In my area one local radio program on gardening tips features a host who is never at a loss for an answer to a listener’s query. The subjects range broadly from trees to grass, flowers to invasive fauna, soil chemistry to hydrology. To be sure, he’s knowledgable. But why is he never stumped?  For this person, apparently, all of the natural world is an open book. Perhaps the toughest questions never make it to air.  But why can’t he have the confidence of Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the two auto mechanics on public radio’s popular program, Car Talk?  Both mengraduates of M.I.T.had a follow-up feature in their show to find out how often they gave a car owner bogus repair advice. Quite often, it turns out. That’s intellectual honesty.

Of course experts are paid to know their stuff.  We want them to have answers. But sometimes they need to allow complexity to have its way.

This willingness to acknowledge the unknown is especially important for teachers and mentors.  It’s a useful lesson to show people new to a field that there is not an answer for every condition. Our love of science and its promise of ironclad certainty makes us look for apparent causality. The rhetoric of causality has embedded itself within the rhetoric of answering. But sometimes asking good questions is the best we can do. The trick is to learn to value the individual who is comfortable enough in their own expertise to accept the limits of human understanding.

Comments: woodward@tcnj.edu