Just fake enough


Enough with all this fretting about “fake news.” Let’s talk about what’s really irritating as a news consumer:

Click baiting.

It’s everywhere, and it’s almost enough make you stop reading news sites that regularly resort to the tactic. It’s beyond irritating to be dragged into a story by a misleading headline put on it solely intended to get you to click on your computer screen.

Here’s a recent example:

“A Juneau man fell through lake ice. He saved himself, and then he saved a grandmother.”

Sounds heroic, doesn’t it? Somebody else reading this surely clicked through. If they did so expecting a dramatic tale of Alaska survival,they were extremely disappointed.

Normally, would provide a link to a story like this, but why encourage click-baiting nonsense? It’s enough that one person had to be tricked into reading the story because if you read it, this is what you would find happened:

“I probably took two steps and then I fell in,”  Houston Laws of Juneau told a reporter in that community. “No, fast kaploosh or anything, it was just like a slow elevator speed, up to my chest. … It was like standing on a coffee table.”

This is not a description of falling through lake ice. That is a description of sinking into an ice-covered lake.

This is what falling through lake ice actually looks like:

There’s nothing slow-motion about it, and you don’t stop at chest level. You go in up to your neck or over your head. If you go over your head, you can only hope you pop up in the same hole.

Laws had a cold and nasty experience, but from his description of what happened it sounds almost like he might have fallen into some sort of overflow. This is pretty common in Alaska.

A lake or creek freezes; running water accumulates on top of the frozen lake or creek; new ice forms on top of the new water; and you have dangerous overflow. Sometimes it can be found stacked up like a layer cake, and you’ll break through ice not once but multiple times.

But maybe not since Laws says he couldn’t find any purchase beneath his feet before he “paddled” to the side of the hole to quickly scramble out. So maybe he happened to be on an iceberg chunk of ice that later froze into the thinner ice of the rest of the lake. That can happen in glacial Alaska lakes.

Whatever the case, what we have here with Laws is a guy who kinda, sorta “fell” through ice.

And the grandmother he “saved?”

Well, that was a woman elsewhere on the lake. She was on firm ice. She never even got her feet wet. The “saving” Laws did amounted to telling her to walk around the open hole in the ice.

He “saved” her pretty much the way someone in Anchorage likely saved an inattentive pedestrian today by grabbing him as he started to cross the street on a red light in downtown traffic.

The accurate headline on this story?

“Juneau man soaked in icy local lake advises others not to do same.”

But the other headline is much catchier, don’t you think?

Now if only it has delivered what it promises, because without that it ends up looking a lot like those stories in the “Around the Web” or “Promoted Stories” banners that Taboola and similar companies hook onto the bottom of hundreds of news websites.

Surely, everyone reading this has seen these stories. Paul Farhi at the Washington Post described them well as “bottom-of-the-page come-ons — “Top 10 Sexiest Female Athletes of 2013.”

If you’ve ever clicked on one of the links, you’ve probably been disappointed. If you’ve clicked on two more, you’re probably just not too smart. Obviously, there are some people who are not too smart.

Taboola founder Adam Singolda in 2014 claimed that “one-third of all American Internet users clicked on a Taboola-supplied link last month,” Farhi reported. “Taboola’s main competitor, another Israeli start-up called Outbrain (both companies are now based in New York), served up links that were clicked 730 million times in December, said Rich Ullman, Outbrain’s vice president of marketing.”

Nine-year-old Taboola was expecting to generate $100 million in revenue in 2014, Fahri reported, as part of a “gigantic, if largely invisible, part of the digital news business. With millions of clicks each day, news recommendation engines drive swarms of readers to and from sites around the Internet.”

Some of the sites are real. Some of them are nothing but advertising disguised as news. Some of them could be called fake news. Some of them hook you into ads that just keep opening  and opening like your computer has hit a spam gold mine.

A few mainstream media publishers have now started to express dismay in part because they’d like the Taboola/Outbrain revenue for themselves and in part because “they are wondering about the effect these so-called content ads may be having on their brands and readers,” as the New York Times reported in October of this year.

“Among the reasons:” the Times noted, “the links can lead to questionable websites run by unknown entities.”

And as all modern journalists now know, it is much, much better to direct readers to questionable stories run by known entities.

Welcome to the New News.






1 reply »

  1. Oh dear, from a guy from the famous Alaska Dispatch before it became ADN, where every fucking story on the site (including yours) including the name Sarah Palin, even if she had nothing at all to do with the story.

    This, my friend, is the pot calling the kettle black. Which it admittedly is, but none-the-less….

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