Social media can be tiresome and irritating enough under regular circumstances. After you saw the Chewbacca mom video once, you really didn’t need to see it again, but lucky for you, three dozen other Facebook friends were happy to share the video with you again and again over the course of a week. During a presidential election, social media takes on a whole new degree of insufferability, as every John and Jane that you had fourth period biology with in seventh grade visits your timeline to let you know exactly how they are feeling about this debate or that scandal.
One particular online annoyance that gets kicked into overdrive for election season is clickbait, those often misleading and always irritating “news articles” that contain little to no substance apart from their eye-catching titles. They serve no purpose except to coax the gullible and uninformed into giving them a click, thusly increasing the site’s traffic and putting ad revenue dollars into the pockets of the site’s proprietors. Particularly troublesome this election cycle, however, is how susceptible conservatives have been to this phenomenon.
If you’re a regular Facebook user and your friends list leans to the right, you likely know exactly what I’m talking about. A headline from an obscure site that you had never previously heard of, with an all caps promise of SHOCKING or INCREDIBLE news that is certain to change the course of the election and possibly civilization as we know it. The contents of the article almost always range from already well-known, to conspiratorial, to completely false. Of course, it matters not if the story is later debunked; you’d be hard-pressed to find these sites printing any retractions or apologies. They’ve already generated the desired traffic and planted the story into the minds of those who don’t bother to check the veracity of their claims. Their work is done.
This scourge on our timelines could be dismissed as a mostly harmless nuisance, were it not for the recent rise in conservative media figures who have also fallen victim to the misinformation and presented the stories to their listeners and readers as fact. A few weeks ago, a California comedian pretended on Twitter to be an Ohio postal worker bragging about destroying absentee ballots cast for Donald Trump. Within hours, a handful of sketchy blogs ran with the (fake) story and conservative talk radio followed soon after. Then, just yesterday, another dubious story emerged about the Obamas scrubbing any mention of Hillary Clinton from their respective Twitter histories and the exact same sequence of events transpired.
In the age of Google, fact checking is not difficult. A quick glance at the postal worker tweet would have shown the comedian advertising himself as a California resident, plain-as-day, right there on his profile. Digging through the president’s Twitter would have been slightly more difficult; you would have to go all the way back to October 20 to find Obama praising Clinton’s final debate performance.
As a portion of the electorate that takes great pride in being “high information,” it’s rather disconcerting to see just how pervasive this problem is in conservative circles. How can we bemoan the left-wing bias and propaganda of mainstream news outlets if we alternatively choose to consume our own brand of garbage? If we choose to propagate stories and headlines that only serve to mislead and inflame simply because they validate our views, then we lose the right to characterize ourselves as well-informed.
So the next time you see an all caps headline, a far-fetched story, or a breaking news item that you WON’T BELIEVE, take your finger off that share button for just a minute. Google is just a click away.