Clickbait can vary in scope from being mildly annoying to socially and culturally dangerous. This may sound a tad dramatic, but it’s a fact. How many times have you clicked on an article because of a punchy headline, only to find that the content does not justify the expectation engendered by the title? My own personal bugbear is two-fold. The amount of times I have clicked on a Facebook article that tells me that my football team has signed an “INCREDIBLE NEW STAR, YOU’LL NEVER GUESS WHO IT IS!!!” only for me to open the article and discover that there is a very good reason why I’ll “never guess who it is” – namely that the article contains the revelation that Chelsea have got a new person cutting the grass at their stadium – is uncountable. While this may not be anything more than a bit irritating, clickbait is not always directed at subjects as generally insignificant as Chelsea’s dodgy transfer policy.
Starting an article about the furore surrounding Liam Neeson’s recent comments, made during an interview with The Independent last month, with a diatribe against clickbait may seem a little strange, but it is in fact highly relevant. Where clickbait becomes actually dangerous is when it provides seriously misleading information that can lead the large portion of the public who scroll past articles without opening them, and who base their opinions predominantly on the information imparted by the limited headline, with a worryingly inaccurate view of the topic being discussed. The format of social media sites such as Facebook lends itself consciously to this style of headline: companies with sites gain traffic from the volume of clicks they generate so it makes good business sense that an article should try to be as punchy and attractive as possible in the hopes of luring in a greater audience. This modus operandi is nothing new; tabloid newspapers have been employing it for decades. Some of the most famous, and most inaccurate, headlines in history have been, for want of a better term, clickbait. The difference with the advent of social media is that both the volume and accessibility of this clickbait material has increased massively.
To return to the issue at hand, Liam Neeson’s recent comments in a newspaper interview, namely that in his youth he spent a brief period of time carrying a cosh and stalking the streets in the hopes of revenging the alleged rape of a close friend by a black man, whom he referred to in quotations marks as “a black bastard”, have caused consternation and led to heavy condemnation of the Irish actor by some sections of the media and public. I myself first found out about this story when scrolling through my newsfeed and my immediate reaction to the headlines, which were predominantly in the vein of “LIAM NEESON SAYS HE WANTS TO KILL BLACK PEOPLE”, was disappointment that an actor I admire would say something so insensitive and foolish. But, knowing what social media is like for spinning headlines, I clicked into and read the article in question – I must note briefly, to my shame, that I have not always been so scrupulous as to form a considered opinion. Unsurprisingly, I found on closer inspection that Neeson had not said he wanted to kill black people, nor that he hated black people, or anything that the headline might have led me to believe. Instead, he was making the point that he himself had been guilty of illogical and blind racism in the past, and moreover that he was, in his own words, “thoroughly ashamed” of his actions which he said were stupid and wrong. The overriding message that I took from his interview was that racism is fuelled by a lack of education and blind illogical dogma perpetrated by the kind of society that Neeson, and many others, grew up in. His use of the phrase “black bastard” was accompanied by the actor miming quotation marks and was obviously a reference to the overriding opinions that would have been expressed at the time under discussion.
Unfortunately, a large portion of the individuals who would have read the title, would not have bothered clicking into the article and discovering the context, or if they did would not read much more than the first few lines – another popular tactic employed by these kind of clickbaitey sites is that the relevant information is always concealed at the end of the page so you have to scroll past the ads to find it. Instead, their opinion on matters of great import such as this are formed predominantly from catchy headlines, which are by nature, often highly factually inaccurate. Couple this with social media’s ability to afford people the luxury of voicing these tainted opinions at will, and you have a very dangerous combination.
Twitter, that notorious breeding-ground for the propagation of factual inaccuracies, was awash with people deriding Neeson for his comments and claiming they’d never watch one of his movies again, although it must be said that a large proportion of people were, like me, defending his comments and their context. Articles on renowned news-sites were similarly split. I have seen some writers arguing that his comments signal the prejudice that black people face and highlight the predominant attitude possessed of white people like Neeson, which regards members of the black community as rapists and murderers. While I am in full agreement that black people still, shamefully, have to contend with appalling racism and discrimination to this day, I strongly disagree that Neeson’s comments accentuate such a corrupted world view. They were comments that, importantly, show how an ingrained racist mindset can be changed by time and education and how someone like Neeson, who grew up in an extremely conservative society, can actively come to realise the error of their opinions and completely refute them. That Neeson should be castigated for proving that indoctrinated racism can be counteracted and neutralised is nearly as damaging as actively promoting racist ideologies, in my opinion. Unfortunately, social media and clickbait style articles are a dangerous phenomenon by which such narrow and unsubstantiated outlooks, can often be propagated and become dominant. As with most issues encountered in life, it is important to make informed and calm decisions based on fact and reason, rather than emotion and hearsay.