Here’s How to Fix It.
Headlines are a science now. If you’re sharing regular links, you’re part of the fake news problem.
Paste a link into Facebook or Twitter and voila, it automagically expands into a beautiful “card,” with hero image and headline. It looks good. It looks true. It looks like you’re sharing the story, but you’re not — you’re sharing a headline. You’re sharing the marketing.
Here are some other headlines we tested out for this piece:
The Headline is Never the Story
The Ruthless, Truthless Pursuit of Engagement
Fake News and Lazy Sharing
Fake News and Clickbait Culture
One Weird Trick to Fix Fake News Forever
Highlights Over Headlines
Media companies write modern-day headlines to provoke an emotional response, to get you to tap Like, Retweet and Recommend as fast as possible rather than engaging your pesky critical thinking skills. That’s the war they’re fighting. Clickbait asks us to visit a story, but we’re increasingly reticent to leave our feeds. And so likebait is the new clickbait, offering the tantalizing and absurd ability to upvote a story we’ve never seen, complicity propagating it throughout the network. And we do this all the time.
These sites get traffic because users click on their articles and share them, because they confirm what they already think to be true. Confirmation bias is a hell of a drug — and, as TechCrunch reporter Kim-Mai Cutler so aptly put it on Twitter, it’s a hell of a business model.
— Ben Thompson, Stratechery, “Fake News”
When headlines are the basic unit of sharing, it’s easy for bullshit stories to spread because hardly anybody even looks at the story. But requiring everybody who reads a story to compose a short post before sharing is too much work. Headlines alone are a disaster, and original commentary is a nonstarter.
There’s an easy answer, though! Highlighting is a simple way to massively improve the quality of what gets shared. And if we make what we share better, we’ll make the news better — because the news follows what we like and share.
Pledge to only share a story if you’re also sharing a highlight.
When you can’t point to at least one important passage, then one of two things is true:
- The story contains no ideas worth amplifying, so it shouldn’t be shared.
- You didn’t even read the story, so you shouldn’t share it.
Including highlights solves the commentary-is-hard problem because it intrinsically tells your friends which idea(s) inspired you to share the story, and it gives those same friends a quick look into the story itself without requiring that they leave their feeds.
So next time you read something that speaks to you, use Facebook’s “quote” post rather than its basic link post. Include screenshots of your highlights when you Tweet (but don’t forget to include the link — context is table stakes).
A lot of folks are doing this already, of course. But for highlighting to be the rule rather than the exception, it’s got to be easy, and it’s got to be everywhere. On Medium, highlighting (and Tweeting highlights) already works. It’s wonderful. Highly brings this feature to the entire internet.
Fix Fakesbook, or find a new news feed.
It’s all fun and games until fake news drowns out the facts and sways an election.
Social platforms should not be in the business of deciding what’s true (Jeff Jarvis nails this), but they should continue to take basic steps to prevent verifiably false information from spreading disguised as truth (Steven Sinofsky analogizes this to email spam filters, and Jeff Jarvis & John Borthwick proffer actionable suggestions).
Facebook is getting what it wants: engagement and eyeballs. Publishers are getting what they want: pageviews and ad dollars. Readers are getting hosed. But we readers can meaningfully improve our lot without waiting for platforms or publishers, without next-level algorithmic filtration or new media business models. Abide by one new, simple rule: highlight before you share.
Headline culture is mind-numbing by design and toxic at scale. It’s foolhardy that we can like, recommend, react to, or comment on stories we’ve never even seen. Meanwhile, interspersing thinking-required news content with emotive baby photos in a blended News Feed underserves both. So while we’ll likely see an evolution in the way Facebook and other platforms address fake news, perhaps a social news revolution is in order.
Imagine a news feed full of highlights instead of headlines, story-centric and innately resistant to marketer manipulation. Imagine a social network that rejects linking unaccompanied by thinking. Imagine reclaiming control of your attention and spending time with important ideas instead of loud ones.
Highly is exactly this. It’s the highlight layer for the internet, built for readers, by readers. And not a moment too soon.
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