Aqeel Ahmad Kang, Al Hakam
Ever clicked on an article because the headline promised something big and spectacular? Were you disappointed because the content behind the gripping title ultimately turned out to be rather moderately interesting or even misleading? Then, you fell for a deceptive technique called clickbait. Clickbait is a term that describes content “designed to make readers want to click on a hyperlink especially when the link leads to content of dubious value.”1
Chances are, however, that many of us have finally caught up with the boy crying wolf and can identify low-value or misleading content because of the sheer ubiquity of clickbait.
On the other hand, as the latest research conducted by the University of Pennsylvania suggests, the people who write such content are also constantly evolving their tricks to grab your prized attention.2 We observe for example that some marketers have moved away from the obvious click-baiting techniques and are masquerading themselves as “knowledge” depositories.
This is particularly worrying for the most vulnerable web users: children and young people. Online learning has surged during Covid-19 pandemic lockdowns. However, it has become increasingly difficult to make sense of what content is based on fact, half-truths or lies. This can be especially dangerous for children and young people who can be persuaded to take on distorted views of the world that could cause them and others, with whom they further share such content, harm in the real world.3
The lack of internet literacy and the ability to distinguish credible resources from fake ones is making matters worse. According to a report by the National Literacy Trust, only 2% of children and young people in the UK had the critical literacy skills they needed to tell whether a news story was real or fake.4 Moreover, the uncertainty about which online learning resource to trust and which one not is negatively affecting their well-being by increasing levels of anxiety in a world where an increasing number of people are already suffering from mental health challenges.
The existence of fake, misleading, unscientific and purely profit-driven online resources of “knowledge”, especially those that are insidious in their modus operandi, means that opinions are formed by web users based on false information. This has a direct impact on society as this makes it more difficult to publicly and freely discuss and solve social issues and conflicts — although that is essential for any healthy society. Hence, such outlets endanger social cohesion.
“Having a large number of people in a society who are misinformed and have their own set of facts is absolutely devastating,” says Stephan Lewandowsky, a cognitive scientist at the University of Bristol in the UK, who studies the persistence and spread of misinformation.5
Listverse.com – A case study
Founded in 20096 by the former opera singer7 Jamie Frater, from the comfort of his home, Listverse is a website that produces lists that are designed to be clickbait with sensational headlines. These headlines lead the users to articles with less-than-credible sources, if referenced at all.
If you still have spare time left after browsing through the countless lists, you may also enjoy the same kind of content repackaged in book form; Mr Frater is the “published author” of those books.
Listverse’s highly lucrative business is purely financed through online advertising revenue and book royalties.8 “We have always been financed through advertising and have not had to personally invest since the first year9,” says Mr Frater. The problem with content, driven by online ads is that the publishers tend to churn out whatever gets more clicks. This seems to be true for Listverse as well, as is evident from the following discussion on the website’s comment section:
Mr Frater: “… people want death. Death and porn.”
A user: “Basic instincts.”
Mr Frater: “Yeah. Maybe I ought to publish more lists like those :)”10
When it comes to the credibility of online content, it is always advisable to take a closer look at the author: Is it a real person? Has the person published anything before? Or is the author someone wanting to make money, regardless of the content of the article? As far as Listverse is concerned, you need not waste time checking the credentials of an author. According to the website, anyone with a PayPal account can sell Listverse an article without even having to put their good name on it.11
Under the heading “Only OK [in order] to waste time”, a reviewer on the consumer website Sitejabber wrote, “Listverse is very hit and miss in the content department. Some lists are well researched and factual and state reputable sources while others are filled with errors both grammatical and factual.”12
Katrina McKinnon, a content provider, while writing an otherwise very positive review of Listverse, describes the state of its “facts” with the example of a car park where you should “park at your own risk”.
“Although Listverse insists on quality and solid references, it is not a science textbook. In fact, you are discouraged from relying on what you read there for what it is. You’d need to do further research,” she writes.13
This theme of semi-factual mishmash is something that runs through other reviews of Listverse as well, with some fact-checking blogs calling it out for frequently publishing information related to pseudoscience and conspiracy theories.
One may object to these reviews, regardless of their credibility or first-hand experience, so let us hear it from the horse’s mouth: In an article titled, “10 Insane Ways The Online Media Is Lying To You”, fact-checked by none other than Jamie Frater, the author, Morris M, admits to Listverse “inadvertently lying to you” and states, “Even when websites source their facts perfectly, they can still end up inadvertently lying to you. Here at Listverse, we’ve been putting out between one and three lists a day since June 30, 2007. Some of our most popular articles were written over half a decade ago, and plenty of the old lists still get some hefty traffic. The only problem is, those old lists are no longer strictly accurate.” A user in the comments section has aptly commented, “Pot is calling the kettle black!”.14
Hence, this is one of those websites, where you should definitely use the look past the headline advice. Of course, nobody is suggesting that everything on Listverse is bogus but, as Lord Macaulay once said, “Half knowledge is worse than ignorance.”15
The “About Section” of Listverse is very keen on letting you know how credible they are: “Listverse has been featured on CNN, BBC, PBS, Gizmodo, and in the New York Times. Our content is cited daily by hundreds of publishers and online magazines,” states the page. Yet, if you go ahead and see what the BBC, for example, actually said about Listverse in a programme aired more than 10 years ago, it is that “There is nothing scientific or official about the creation of these lists”.16
TIME is another name proudly displayed by Listverse. However, Listverse is listed at the bottom of the top 25 blogs of 2011.17 Likewise, if one clicks through the links to the rest of the big names that have been listed on the website, it becomes evident that those pages either do not mention Listverse or there is merely a fleeting mention.
To be fair to the creators of Listverse, they have added a line on one of the pages saying, “Any reliance placed on material posted on Listverse Limited website(s) is done at your own risk,”18 possibly in order to absolve themselves of any responsibility.
The internet is a place where the prevalence of truth based on scientific and historical facts in online content varies widely. In traditional publications, the content was written and edited by established experts in the various fields. Nowadays, anyone with access to the internet can style themselves as an expert author. Therefore, it is more important than ever before to read such content with a critical eye.
Our democracy and the general social cohesion is dependent on well-informed citizens. The 2016 US election and the recent misinformation campaigns regarding the Covid-19 pandemic have once again highlighted the need for caution. Hence, it is important to educate young people and parents not to fall for some of the biggest charlatans on the internet such as Listverse and Co. and not to afford them any more credibility than they really deserve.
1 “Clickbait Definition & Meaning.” Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster. Accessed November 17, 2021. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/clickbait.
2 Swayne, Matt. “Clickbait Headlines Might Not Lure Readers as Much, May Confuse Ai.” Penn State University. Penn State News. Accessed November 17, 2021. https://www.psu.edu/news/research/story/clickbait-headlines-might-not-lure-readers-much-may-confuse-ai/.
3 “Learn about Fake News to Support Children.” Internet Matters. Accessed November 17, 2021. https://www.internetmatters.org/issues/fake-news-and-misinformation-advice-hub/learn-about-fake-news-to-support-children/.
4 “Fake News and Critical Literacy – National Literacy Trust.” Accessed November 17, 2021. https://cdn.literacytrust.org.uk/media/documents/Fake_news_and_critical_literacy_-_final_report.pdf.
5 “Lies, Propaganda and Fake News: A Challenge for Our Age.” BBC Future. BBC. Accessed November 17, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20170301-lies-propaganda-and-fake-news-a-grand-challenge-of-our-age.
6 “About Listverse.” Listverse. Accessed November 17, 2021. https://listverse.com/about-listverse/.
7 Life, Forbes. “17 Reasons Why Everyone Loves Lists.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, March 31, 2014. Accessed November 17, 2021. https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbeslifestyle/2014/03/31/17-reasons-why-everyone-loves-lists/?sh=6449d6a6693e.
8 McKenzie, Erin, Idealog, and The Register Team. “From Blog to Brand: Jamie Frater (Listverse).” stoppress.co.nz, January 21, 2014. Accessed November 17, 2021. https://stoppress.co.nz/news/blog-brand-jamie-frater-listverse/.
10 Jamie Frater. Comments under “10 Tips for Success in Everything.” Listverse, June 19, 2021. Accessed November 17, 2021. http://disq.us/p/d4qw8b.
11 “Submit a List.” Listverse. Accessed November 17, 2021. https://listverse.com/submit-a-list/.
12 Listverse reviews – 1.7 stars. Sitejabber. (n.d.). Retrieved November 17, 2021, from https://www.sitejabber.com/reviews/listverse.com.
13 McKinnon, Katrina (2021, July 26). Listverse Review: Differentiating myth from fact. Small Revolution. Retrieved November 17, 2021, from https://www.smallrevolution.com/listverse-review/.
14 M., Morris, “10 Insane Ways The Online Media Is Lying To You.” Listverse, July 26, 2015. Accessed November 17, 2021. https://listverse.com/2015/07/26/10-insane-ways-the-online-media-is-lying-to-you/.
15 Forbes Magazine. (n.d.). Quotes. Forbes. Retrieved November 17, 2021, from https://www.forbes.com/quotes/9027/.
16 Frater. “Listverse on BBC” June 30, 2010. Timestamp 0:30. https://youtu.be/9Q7Y2gyS8OM?t=30. [Accessed: 17 November 2021].
17Time Inc. (n.d.). The Best Blogs of 2011. Time. Retrieved November 17, 2021, from http://content.time.com/time/specials/packages/completelist/0,29569,2075431,00.html.
18 “About Listverse.” Listverse. Accessed November 17, 2021. https://listverse.com/about-listverse/.