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The year 2016 is a bizarre time to be alive, well things have been bizarre for a few years now, but the ridiculousness really seems to have hit its stride.
Everyone is walking around connected to little glowing screens on which people from around the world can share information, pictures, videos, you name it. And a lot of people are doing great things with those little glowing screens – crimes are solved, fundraisers for great causes are promoted, missing dogs are rescued, and myriad other very good things have been done thanks to a constantly connected global community.
But over the past couple of years a more troublesome side of the internet has emerged in the form of a perpetual lust for controversy.
Sometimes it’s a tweet, sometimes it’s a scene from a TV show, sometimes it’s a viral video, it could really be anything that gets web surfers into an uproar.
Here are just a few examples from the past week.
So it would have been a miracle if we were able to get through the Olympics without some kind of controversy getting kicked up on the web. As expected the Rio games delivered with the usual.
I’ll save you the time and energy, and let you know that everything that everyone was outraged about was actually completely innocuous.
But more concerning than day-to-internet outrage caused by online crybabies – because let’s be honest, we all know the world is filled with crybabies, the internet has simply given them a crib in which to cry – is the role that the media is playing in manufacturing that outrage.
Take this article that recently appeared in the San Jose Mercury News.
The headline ‘Olympics: Michael Phelps Shares Historic Night With African American’ drew a severe backlash online prompting the paper to publish an apology.
“We apologize for an insensitive headline earlier on a story about Simone Manuel and Michael Phelps’ medal wins.”
They apologized, but I doubt they were sorry.
See, headlines like the one that put the Merc (as it is apparently called in the Bay, and as I will call it for the sake of brevity) under the microscope are all part of ‘the new yellow journalism.’
Yellow journalism came about toward the end of the 19th century when Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were duking it out for control of the New York media market.
Their papers – The New York World and The New York Journal respectively – were accused of sensationalizing stories to drive readership.
It’s an early example of how poisonous for profit media can be in the wrong hands.
Fast forward about 120 years and the practice is still alive and well albeit in a different form. It started slowly with 24-hour news networks who will refer to anything from a cow running around Queens to Donald Trump being photographed eating a taco bowl as breaking news. Social media served as an accelerant of sorts and now all but the most credible news sources engage in the practice.
To understand why this happens it’s necessary to understand how digital media turns a profit. The elementary school explanation goes as follows: Every time a reader clicks on an article it counts as a “click.” The more clicks a website generates the more its owner can charge for advertising. Think of clicks as viewers for TV or listeners for radio.
In a hyper competitive marketplace the fight for clicks is like a massive digital game of Hungry Hungry Hippos. Digital media outlets from Buzzfeed and Mashable to the Daily News and New York Post are desperate to accumulate clicks, make money, and stay in business – hey, we all have to put food on the table.
Right now, two of the most effective ways to drive up your total number or clicks or ‘driving traffic’ as they call it in the biz, is through search engine optimization ‘SEO’ and social media where likes, shares, and comments – referred to as engagement – help drive traffic.
Now let’s look back at the story from the Merc.
The headline ‘Olympics: Michael Phelps Shares Historic Night With African American’ serves a couple of purposes for the paper.
First, since Michael Phelps is the biggest name in the Olympics a lot of people will be searching “Olympics Michael Phelps.” So the Merc’s headline will land it at the top of any google search including those terms – hello pageviews!
Next — and this is where the journalism becomes yellow – is the use of the term African American to refer to Simone Manuel.
If you’re wondering why they didn’t just use their eventual replacement headline ‘Olympics: Stanford’s Simone Manuel and Michael Phelps make history’ from the get go it’s because the name ‘Simone Manuel’ only sticks out to hardcore swimming fans and maybe a handful of Stanford grads. Even if you watched her compete on TV in Rio the name isn’t likely to stay with you long in the event that anything more pertinent is taking up space in your brain’s limbic system – probably right?
So in an industry that rewards pageviews with cash how does a digital media outlet capitalize on a once-every-4-years athletic event? By finding angles that will drive clicks, and given the current social climate in the U.S. a headline that includes the words African American or woman will indeed drive both pageviews and engagement.
Naturally they’ll get a few from people who want to know how Phelps did, but with ESPN offering round the clock sports coverage it helps to have another angle to really get your numbers up. Enter ‘internet outrage.’
It’s no secret that people on the internet love to fight with each other. In fact you could make a pretty convincing argument that the three most popular uses for the internet are streaming HD porn, finding great Cyber Monday deals, and arguing with complete strangers.
In the world of online arguments race and gender are probably two of the most combustible conversation topics. Enter a term related to either topic into Twitter’s search bar and you’ll be up to your eyeballs in vitriol. So by referring to Manuel – a woman — as an African American, while referring to Phelps – a white male — by name, the Merc has created a piece of content that is highly likely to be clicked on, shared, and engaged with.
What all of this means is that it is in the best financial interests of the media to divide readers along any lines possible, they are attempting to bait you – through anger or agreement – into clicking on the article, hence the term ‘click bait.’
There is of course good journalism and quality writing available on the web but it is incumbent on the consumer to read with a critical eye.
I’ll leave you with a social experiment that you can conduct all by yourself the next time you’re waiting to catch a bus.
Scroll through your newsfeed and take a closer look at some of the headlines being shared by your friends, put them under serious scrutiny, and then scrub those headlines with the actual content in the articles…what happens next will shock you.
This contributor is a Marine veteran that has served in the Middle East. Due to the sensitive nature of his current job, he has requested to remain anonymous.