Our clickbait news feed

Yes, NY Times and NPR: that includes you.

5 min readFeb 13, 2024

Clickbait news is generally thought to belong in the lower echelons of digital news. It’s where a headline on a social media page pulls your attention with its sheer weight of magnetic attraction, and now you’re swimming in junk news land. Popup ads dominate your experience, and the ‘article’ that brought you here is just one of dozens, and you quickly realize you’re eating the junk food of internet ‘news’. Some of us have no problem with this, and will happily stick around to read about Taylor & Travis latest gossip, some Kardassian wardrobe updates, and even dabble in the serious world of business and finance by reading about a Twitter/X spat between a national bank CEO and a rapper you’ve never heard of.

Our allegedly reputable news sources rarely get accused of publishing hooks for the less discriminating reader. However, open up npr.com, nytimes.com, latimes.com or wapo.com and cast your scrutinous eye on the offerings, then tell us if you find all of the content to meet your high standards. There are obvious fail cases, like cnn.com or theguardian.com, where half the articles score low on newsworthiness of content and very high on trigger instinct ‘must click’ value. Let’s examine the allegedly high quality publishers and their junk categories.

  1. Hate thine enemy. This is Latin for Republicans. Of course. The articles in this category never miss an opportunity to point out the odious nature of a republican senator, canidate, house rep or TV personality. We click on it because we’re seeking the dopamine hit that comes with a crumb of confirmation bias. We were looking for a bit of information reminding us that we’re right to hate all republicans. So we clicked, and here we are. Now we hate one more billionaire, politician, actor or TV host.
  2. Please shed a tear. Our bleeding heart nature is the engine that helps us believe we are genuinely good, kind, caring humans. Even when we are not. The headline calls us to show how much we care, hailing our attention to consider the dogs and cats in a hurricane aftermath, etc etc. We click, we read, we share oin social. We confirm it: we are truly wonderful, kind human beings. You’re welcome. We just learned about something completely meaningless, but our tearjerker trigger has been satiated.
  3. Gloom and doom forecast. Apple is going to fail next year. Netflix will have to raise prices to $99 a month. Chocolate will become a memory as cacao goes extinct. The following species will be extinct next year. We simply must click on these stories because we believe it’s important to be alert and well informed, and (see above) as caring and concerned human beings, we absolutely must add this new concern to our long and growing list of anxiety-depression-causing concerns. We may be passing these on to our teenagers, causing them to report suicidal feelings, but it’s more important to us that we remain alert and concerned. We rarely stop to question the credulity of the story because NY Times thought it was newsworthy. Gosh, we pay a hiogh price for our fundamental goodness…
  4. A(nother) worrying trend. Schools in red states are banning more books. Health insurance increasingly is no longer covering home dialysis machines. Men are doing this awful thing, etc etc sob sob sob. The story almost invariably impacts other people, not the reader, yet we absolutely must click to grasp the impact of this worrying trend so we may continue being wonderful caring humans. After two paragraphs we begin to realize the story lacks substance and is in fact pointing to a far smaller trend than the headline hinted. However, we are now armed with yet another new and worrying trend to talk about at dinner and impress our concerned citizen friends with our deep social conscience and awareness. Please pass me my halo.
  5. Done well / Doing some good. Ah yes, yet another celebrity has decided this week to step out from their Pacific Palisades mansion and their busy social calendar to devote some serious attention to a serious problem. The headline is dripping niceness and kindness, and the photo is just adorable, so we must click on it. Turns out that celeb is not as vain or shallow or airheaded as we had suspected: they’re helping build a shelter specially for pet rabbits without homes. Simply adorable. Thank you, LA Times for sharing this important story.

We may want to examine our part in this junk epidemic that is pulling down reputable news peddlers and turning them into McNews outlets. Our weakness in the face of algorhithms and traps in the attention economy is quite alarming and very discouraging. We have little chance of outfoxing a clickbait story especially when it’s coming from our trusted source of truth.

In 2024 we need to be more vigilant than ever as our social media and ‘out in the wild’ internet content is being invaded by Russian and other misinformation algorithms. We can laugh at the MAGA brigade for their gullibility and the ease with which they fall to bullshit stories. But the educated liberal reader is almost equally susceptible to believing disingenuous narrative. The Critical Race Theory peddlers who amplify racial injustice issues are often guilty of seeing the entire human race through the lens of racial struggle, muting or un-weighting the geopolitical forces, economic forces and the counterweighted good news stories that make up the full picture. They encourage us to identify the oppressor and the oppressed in a situation, then immediately take the side of the oppressed. But in Gaza for example, we forget that Hamas is a ruthless, barbaric and deeply shitty organization that practices oppression against women, science, knowledge and economic development. This doesn’t fit into the writer’s oppressor/oppressed narrative, so we remain blind to inconvenient truths.

Next time we laugh at a MAGA theory about deep state, let’s take a look in the mirror and ask ourselves how deeply we have been misled by the caring people’s media. We should also ask ourselves whether our teenagers deserve to be raised on a diet of worry-inducing propaganda that rarely offers ideas or innovation to remedy the gloom is narrates.

From the purest of intentions, springs the most evil coercion.




San Francisco geek, entrepreneur, wannabe economist, mediocre equestrian