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You Have No Idea What’s Behind These Clickbait Headlines! So I’ll Tell You!

David Pogue
May 21, 2014

When I wrote for The New York Times, I always admired how the editors could put a story in just the headline. They still do, of course: “Credit Suisse Pleads Guilty in Tax Evasion Scheme.” “Russia Says It Pulled Troops, but NATO Sees No Sign.” “Mayor Tells City’s Tabloids to Apologize to His Wife.”

Those headlines are transparent and efficient. They’re good journalism.

Those headlines contrast sharply with the headlines we all know of as “clickbait” — teaser headlines that imply that if you click the link, you’ll be rewarded by something shocking, amazing, uplifting, or sexy.

Very occasionally, clicking turns out to be worth it, and you’re glad you bothered. More often, it’s a total fraud, and you’ve just wasted your time. Even at their best, clickbait headlines are shameless hype. At their worst, they’re downright deceptive.

Clickbait, of course, is a scheme to drive up a website’s traffic. It’s a modern spin on tabloid journalism. But it shows tremendous insecurity; if you have a good story, why do you have to overhype it?

And it’s costly to you, the reader/victim. Sometimes you’re deceived, and sometimes you can’t find the answer to the headline’s riddle without watching a video. Which wastes your time and, if you’re on a plane with glacial WiFi, frustrates you because you can’t find the missing element.

But you know what? Two can play this game. If they can tease us by publishing half-truthy, overhyped headlines, then I can burst their bubble by revealing the tantalizing secret of each one. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present: Pogue’s Clickbait Spoilers!

Here are the latest clickbait stories that have been circling through Facebook lately, and what you’d find if you clicked through. I’m saving you time and irritation, and teaching you a little about what passes for reporting these days. (And yet by including the links, I’m still offering the originating websites a little extra publicity.)

You’re both welcome.

Clickbait: The three deadliest drugs in America are all totally legal

Spoiler:Tobacco, alcohol, and prescription painkillers. (Each kills more people than marijuana.)

Clickbait: This Is The Personality Trait That Most Often Predicts Success

Spoiler: Conscientiousness.

Clickbait: What Happens When A Horse Discovers A Kiddie Pool? You Won’t Believe It!

Spoiler: It kicks with its front legs to splash water onto its body.

ClickbaitA Man Falls Down And Cries For Help Twice. The Second Time, My Jaw Drops.

Spoiler: It’s a little social stunt. The first time, he’s dressed like a homeless guy; passersby ignore his cries for help. The second time, he’s dressed in a suit; people help him up.

 People Should Know About This Awful Thing We Do, And Most Of Us Are Simply Unaware

Spoiler: Seabirds eat tiny bits of plastic floating in the ocean and die. Photos show rotted bird carcasses with stomachs full of plastic bits.

ClickbaitPeople Are Making This Mistake In Bed Every Day, And It’s Making Us Sick

Spoiler: The video actually refers to a whole string of “mistakes,” but they boil down to making snap sexual decisions without enough information (like “He looks clean and showered; he must be disease-free”).  

Clickbait: Watch These Straight People Answer A Question Gay People Have Been Asked For Years

Spoiler: “When did you choose to be straight?”

Clickbait: This Guy Got A Ticket For Not Riding His Bicycle In The Bike Lane. His Response Was Brilliant!

Spoiler: It’s not just any man — it’s Casey Neistat, the guerilla filmmaker whose “The iPod’s Dirty Secret” video campaign in 2003 seems to have led to Apple changing its battery-replacement policies.

In this video, a policeman tickets him for riding outside the bike lane. Casey points out that there are frequently obstacles in the bike lane, but the cop is unmoved. So Casey films himself riding directly into trash cans, cars, and other objects that are in the bike lane, obviously risking grave injury.

Clickbait: Here’s The Problem With Self-Driving Cars Becoming A Mainstream Reality

Spoiler: People find it more fun to drive manually.

Clickbait: This Drinkable Book Is Going To Save Millions Of Lives

Spoiler: Researchers have developed a book whose pages can filter dirty water.

ClickbaitWhen the father flipped the sign over, I was just amazed. I’m sure this will change you too.

Spoiler: It’s a little film of silent sad people holding up cardboard signs: “You fired me,” “You abused me,” “You killed my daughter,” and the like. Then they flip the signs over; on the back, they say variations of “I forgive you.” (It turns out to be an ad for a Christian video company.)

Clickbait: Sir Anthony Hopkins Hears The Waltz He Wrote 50 Years Ago For The First Time. I’m Left Speechless

Spoiler: Orchestra plays a piece that Anthony Hopkins wrote years ago. He beams, audience sways, but it’s not at all clear why the headline writer was left speechless. 

Clickbait: My Heart Exploded When I Watched This Love-Filled Flash Mob.

Spoiler: Woman with terminal cancer is surprised by a flash mob of friends who dance for her. 

Clickbait: These Boys Started Singing And Simon Did The Unthinkable! WOW!

Spoiler: Two young lads in Britain’s Got Talent sing an anti-bullying rap. Simon Cowell lets them advance to the next round. Why is that unthinkable?

You’ll note, by the way, that this week’s trick headlines come from all manner of websites — not just known clickbaiters like Upworthy and BuzzFeed, but also religious outfits and more serious journalistic sites like Business Insider.

It’s about time somebody started pointing out hucksterism wherever it occurs. Maybe, if enough of us start making fun of these tactics, these sites will be shamed straight. 

For more clickbait spoilers, see the Twitter accounts @HuffPoSpoilers, @SavedYouAClick, and @UpworthySpoiler.

See also: Upworthy: Take Down That Autism Headline

You can email David Pogue here.