The internet is a fantastic tool for democracy. Gone are the days politicians can make claims that are flat out wrong and not have someone point it out within 24 hours. Yet, paradoxically, one of it’s more recent trends — link-baiting — is turning the media into a great tool for the spread of propaganda.
Link-baiting, for the uninitiated, is the process of encouraging people to click on links by making them more enticing. The classic example is a headline that is a list of trivia, ideally with a shocking element (e.g. Top 10 Most Unforgivable Twitter Spelling Mistakes). It’s a process that has been well honed by Buzzfeed and the Daily Mail allowing them to reap the rewards of huge visitor numbers.
A tempting headline isn't anything new of course. Newspapers have been doing this for years, the tabloids in particular. However, the internet has made the process all the more important as we only read what interests us.
With the attention span of the twitter generation measured in the milliseconds, there is a growing demand to impart information as briefly as possible.
Here’s where it gets dangerous
We live in a world where we are confident our politicians can’t lie to us or hypnotise us on mass like the Nazis did. We have a free press — the propaganda used in the days of old won’t work any more. Plus we have the internet — propaganda will be quickly debunked.
This confidence we have leaves us open to this creeping new form of propaganda — the evidence based lie. The idea that so long as what you write has some evidence behind it — however questionable — it isn't libellous or fabricated. Take these headlines:
Jewish plans to ‘threaten German peace’ laid out at conference — Der Stürmer #34, 1933 *
How different is that to:
Germany admits mass immigration threatens ‘social peace’ — Daily Mail,July 2013
Both headlines catch your attention. Both stories claim accuracy as they use quotation marks to helpfully pass the responsibility to the source of their quote. Both headlines can be easily debunked as untrue, but how many people will read the debunking? 10%? That leaves 90% of the readers with the impression that the headline was true.
Both stories can lead to frighteningly dark places.
Politicians have figured out how to use the media to spread their propaganda
It’s a simple formula. Take some statistics you’ve cherry picked from a long dull report, or a report from a questionable source, and present them in a press release as evidence for your message.
Certain topics are sure to get a headline: immigrants and those on welfare are particular favourites. They are great scapegoats for the problems of society and anything that will “prove” they are to blame for the nation’s ills will attract readers.
Construct the basic elements, and hey-presto — you have the press eating out of your hands:
The TRUE cost of health tourism: Foreigners using NHS cost Britain up to £2BILLION a year — Daily Mail
Once the quoted study’s findings had been properly reviewed, the actual costs stack up at about £60million. But that doesn't matter, even the left wing press had headlines like this:
Temporary migrants cost NHS up to £2bn a year, says study — Guardian
The latter story does include reference to the lower figures, but it doesn't matter at that point.Most readers don’t read past the headline; those who do will still put more credence in what’s written in bold at the top of the page. “Immigrants are costing me money!”
It’s only going to get worse
With newspaper circulation dwindling and sites like Buzzfeed demonstrating that snappy, provocative headlines (i.e. linkbaiting) bring visitors, the press are only going to continue the practice. Politicians are going to embrace the evidence based lie trick to use the media as a vehicle for their ideology and we’ll keep reading.
Hopefully the press will realise they are being used and put ethics before profit before things go too far.
*The actual headline was “Secret Plans against Germany Revealed” but I made a revision that would make it plausible in the modern world.