Can You Trust Your Trusted Sources?

This past week, I read an article on the MIT Technology Review website, “We aren’t terrified enough about losing the Amazon,” and I made it the top story in my daily newsletter. Within hours, I received hundreds of emails from readers telling me that the MIT Technology Review, and most of the main-stream media, was misreporting the issue in the Amazon. More than one reader included a link to this Forbes article, “Why Everything They Say About The Amazon, Including That It’s The ‘Lungs Of The World,’ Is Wrong.” Not surprisingly, I received just as many emails supporting the MIT article. Clearly, I had some homework to do.

Trust Issues

On scientific issues, I have always considered MIT a trusted source. The article I shared was written by MIT Technology Review’s senior editor for energy. Because this is an MIT publication, I trusted that the writing was independently fact checked. At least in this case, my trust was misplaced, as it is now clear that burning rainforest stories are a hot mess of facts, editorials, and agenda-serving factoids. I was embarrassed both personally and professionally for misplacing my trust and I apologized to my readers the next day.

An Enduring War on The Border of Trust

Whether it’s because of schadenfreude, morbid curiosity, or simple human nature, the journalistic trope “If it bleeds, it leads” never disappoints. Disaster stories always gather a bigger audience than fair and balanced who, what, where, when, why reporting. And because anyone who creates content – which is now everyone – is in a never-ending battle for everyone else’s attention. From the reader’s point of view, there is a dramatic misalignment of incentives and outcomes.

Clickbait Class

As a recent victim of clickbait (and a sensationalist headline), I thought it would be worthwhile to share some techniques that are commonly used to get your attention. These three “journalistic” practices should make you question the veracity every piece of content you consume.

Three Amazing Ways to Get People to Click on Your Posts

1 – Clickbait Is Everything! For content to be consumed, it needs to be clicked. That means we’re training everyone to craft the most clickable, sensationalistic, irresistible headlines possible.

It’s easy to write a clickbait title. Pick a subject, then add some keywords from time-tested clickbait: Amazing, Announcing, Bargain, Challenge, Compare, Easy, Hurry, Improvement, Introducing, Magic, Miracle, Now, Offer, Quick, Remarkable, Revolutionary, Sensational, Startling, Suddenly, Wanted. For example: “Warning: New Cookie Law Means 92% of All Websites Are Now Illegal, including Yours.”

Want to really have some clickbait fun? Hold a listicle headline contest in your office. Start with a crazy example like “9 Ways to Bounce a Quarter off Kim Kardashian’s Butt” and see where it goes. The results will make you laugh – until you realize that they are all super-valid and would probably do better than the titles you usually post.

2 – Pit Readers Against One Another. Got a great clickbait title? Excellent! Now, split your audience in half and pit them against one another. Are you with us or against us? This technique all but guarantees you will win the Twitter war your article starts. Here’s how to do it:

  1. Pick an issue guaranteed to enrage your opposition.
  2. Figure out how to make the issue truly binary, no matter how nuanced or subtle it is. Yes or No. You’re with us or against us.
  3. Craft a barrage of strategically related antifragile messages (marketers, pay attention here).
  4. Keep the chaos going. (Brand safety? We don’t need no stinkin’ brand safety!) More tweets, more related enraging issues. More, more, more. Keep repeating steps 1–4.
  5. Enjoy the increase in followers, virality, and the size of the community of like-minded people that has self-assembled around you.

3 – Blanket Your Readers in Comfort. Now that you’ve drawn readers in with a clickbait title and pitted them against one another, blanket them in the comfort of the information they want to hear. It doesn’t take a five-paragraph essay; you can do it in 300-450 words.

  1. State your thesis in the topic sentence (make sure it has your clickbait keywords in it).
  2. Reinforce your main point with a supporting sentence that confirms your readers’ bias.
  3. Add a few more supporting sentences crafted to bounce around the echo chamber you’ve created or tapped into.
  4. Profit from your effort.

The better you are at fitting your content to the ethos, pathos, and logos of an echo chamber, the more successful you will be. It’s worse for the world, but way better for your bottom line.

What About Trust and Truth?

In the age of algorithms, if a piece of content’s keywords match the bucket a mathematical model has put you in, you’re going to be offered that content. The algorithms do nothing to check the facts or the accuracy of the content. (In a world where news, opinion and commentary are routinely mixed, how would you even approach the issue?) Notwithstanding big tech’s and the government’s efforts, this is unlikely to change in all but the most obvious cases.

If I Could Have a “Do-Over”

Going forward, I will do my best to ensure that the articles I share with my readers (even articles from “trusted” sources) don’t rely on pseudoscience, hearsay, or alternative facts.

Even with all my good intentions, the problem may still be intractable. In our time-compressed world, I want to trust MIT for science. I want to trust all my “sacred cow” sources in their respective disciplines. Whom can I trust? At this point, I really don’t know.

Author’s note: This is not a sponsored post. I am the author of this article and it expresses my own opinions. I am not, nor is my company, receiving compensation for it.

Get Briefed Every Day!

Subscribe to my daily newsletter featuring current events and the top stories in technology, media, and marketing.