Once or twice, we at Cracked have gone out of our way to point out when a totally bullshit "news" story blows up and goes viral. And by "once or twice," we mean we've done this exact premise 25 times.
So far we've confined ourselves to going after stories that were outright false and spread mainly by the most crapulent news sources imaginable, but lately we've started to notice a different growing trend: attention-grabbing headlines that have nothing to do with the article's actual content. Websites can get away with this because, for thousands of people, the headline is all they read before clicking "share." One of NPR's writers proved this beautifully on April Fools' Day 2014, with an article titled "Why Doesn't America Read Anymore?" The actual article admitted they had nothing to say about literacy and it was purely a test to see if people would share content they hadn't even skimmed.
Sweet flashdancing fuck yes they would.
So apparently lying to millions of people is fine as long as you do it with the right headline. We've christened this trend headlying and put together a guide to spotting it before you give precious clicks to a bullshit article. You should start getting suspicious when you notice these dead giveaways:
#5. The Stupidest Detail Is the Whole Story
Hey, did you catch this story about a woman who parked her car on the highway, leading to the deaths of two motorcyclists? She's now staring at the chance of life in prison, and you probably feel like that's a fair punishment. Shitty drivers rank right above Nazi doctor and below Satan on our Sympathy Scale. If this story doesn't sound familiar, it's because almost all the coverage looked like this:
"But the ducks are cool, right?"
See, the Canadian Wonder up there stopped her car on the highway to rescue some ducklings. Obviously, "helping ducks" is the angle you lead with. Fuck it, that's the only detail any of your readers ever need to hear. Cut those two dead human beings out of the mix and this goes from a sad story to a headline that'll flood Facebook feeds like the banks of the Ganges after a thunderstorm. Of course it's not surprising to see Fox fart out that kind of headline; they've got about as much journalistic street cred as J.K. Rowling. But here's the Independent's coverage:
"Our logo should have been a tipoff to our pro-avian sympathies."
And here's USA Today's headline. At this point, we've jettisoned any mention of a crash altogether, because that shit just gets in the way of the righteous duck narrative we've got going on:
"Please check our new yellow tab for all related duck news."
Uproxx, who, let's face it, are about as reputable as any of these guys nowadays, completed this lady's arc from "reckless motorist who ended two lives" to "EMBATTLED DEFENDER OF DUCK-KIND":
So what the hell is going on here? Read a little further in each of these stories and you get to the real facts -- the author of this article wasn't under the misconception that this woman had somehow run afoul of Canada's neo-fascist duck-hating government. Whoever wrote these titles knew that the real story was a tragic non-issue. But holy shit, you guys, running a modern website means new content every day, and that whole duck bit was too crazy to not run somehow.
The goal of headlying isn't to convince people to read the actual article. It's a cynical act of content necromancy, raising a dead story back to life via the animating power of lies, secure that no one who shares your article through social media will ever bother to read it. Think the term "content necromancy" is a smidge hyperbolic?
#4. A Year-Old Story Is Suddenly Breaking News
No story is too ancient to be dusted off and retold, but this time with urgency.
"Local ducks unharmed."
Holy shit! What an infuriating example of unchecked police abuse. Cops just shot some wheelchair-bound World War II vet for refusing to visit the hospital. It's not until you read on that you realize this whole thing went down a full year ago. The new part of the story is that the cop involved has been charged and got a trial date, and the vet's family is suing. But that headline isn't nearly as sexy as "POLICE KILL WWII VET WITH BEANBAG GUN," so why bother writing a new one?
This kind of necromancy happens most often with infuriating stories of abuse, violence, and social injustice. There's a rational part of the brain that short circuits as soon as the "moral outrage" lobe lights up. We go straight into fight mode and start broadcasting our rage without pausing to make sure there's actually something to be outraged about. The websites you visit know this, because they have detailed metrics on how you browse and what you share. They know that flipping the right switch in enough brains can be the difference between a story going viral and their writers going home without liquor money.
#3. Science Made Interesting (With Lies)
Science is a pain in the ass. As much as we "like" I Fucking Love Science, we don't actually understand or give two shits about science. Because real science is a thing of incremental advances, and that's not super shareable.
"Guys, I'm really concerned about the lack of the word 'science' on our page. Maybe add some pop-ups?"
Here's NASA's coverage of a new discovery -- it's pretty sensational, actually. The phrase "habitable zone" sounds way more positive than it really is. The scientists in the article admit they have absolutely no idea if the planet is anything close to habitable. It's just not too close or too far to be an Instant Death World. While NASA's PR person played it a little fast and loose with the titling, everyone else just went straight for "NEW EARTH!":
"The planet is thought to be equal in mass to the amount of bullshit this story contains."
Of course, this sort of thing happens all the fucking time with space stuff. Remember this headline?
"And we may soon report facts. Who knows?"
The actual story? A dying star may go supernova within the next few centuries/several thousand years. If it does, our distant descendants might have a brighter night sky for a couple of weeks. (As if the Steam Towers of the Infernal Emperor won't have blotted out the night sky by then.)
Pay no mind to the fact that this "Earth-like" planet is five times the size of Earth, much closer to its sun, and also 16 light-years away. We'll call that a stone's throw, because if we ever make the single greatest advance in propulsion history and invent light-speed engines, it'll only be one-fifth of a human lifetime away!