clickbait

The Huffington Ghost: A New Low For SA Media

On Thursday, the South African version of HuffingtonPost, a website owned by Media24 and curated by former Mail&Guardian editor, Verashni Pillay, published an article called “Could It Be Time To Deny White Men The Franchise?”

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The author of the piece was one Shelley Garland, an “MA Philosophy Student”. Her Twitter bio said that she was a “Perpetual Feminist causing the retreat of patriarchy”, and that she was in Auckland, New Zealand.

Soon after it was published, the column was picked up by a number of right-wing websites, including Breitbart.com. The response was a predictable wave of outrage, ranging from condemnations of a clearly unconstitutional suggestion to outright, frothing-at-the-mouth misogyny.

If you’d visited HuffingtonPost SA on the 26th of January, you’d have encountered this:

clickbait

If you’d recovered from choking on your coffee and clicked the most-read story, you would have discovered that it was, in fact, an opinion piece about the dangers of fake news. Geddit? See what they did there? See how they showed how easy it is to fall for clickbait by, er, well, engaging in some primo clickbaiting?

In other words, Pillay and HuffPo SA are already experienced clickbaiters, and when Garland’s piece found international traction they were ready to cash in. Within a day, Pillay had written a piece called “This Blog On White Men Is Going Viral. Here’s Our Response”. In it, she listed some of the vilest responses the original post had received. Inevitably, it also elicited a flood of clicks.

Trending1

At HuffPo SA it wasn’t just Easter: it was Christmas, too. Sipho Hlongwane, head of the blogging division (or as professional writers call it, “the Helping Destroy Actual Journalism By Getting Amateurs To Write For Free And Thereby Keeping Rates So Low That Nobody Can Afford To Be A Journalist” division) was beside himself at all the clicks.

SiphoOh how we laughed. (He has subsequently deleted that tweet.)

However, angry white men, raving woman-haters and sweaty-palmed bean-counters weren’t the only people who’d noticed the posts.

Cape Town editor and writer, Laura Twiggs, had smelled a rat and soon started doing some of the best journalistic sleuthing I’ve seen in many moons.

The first alarm bell was the fact that Shelley Garland had only just joined Twitter and had no online presence whatsoever.

no trace

Things got odder, however, when she spoke to Garland on Twitter.

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A proud student of the University of “Johannesberg” would, of course, be known by her institution, even if she didn’t know how to spell the city in which it was. But again, Twiggs discovered a peculiar void where Shelley Garland should have been.

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And then, two even stranger things happened.

Firstly, in a direct message to Twiggs, Garland denied writing the piece and suggested that it had in fact been written in-house by HuffingtonPost SA.

Garland DMs

And then, hey presto –

Laura4

Shelley Garland, or whichever person, people or organization was claiming to be “Shelley Garland”, deleted her/their Twitter account.

On Friday evening, Twiggs began Tweeting questions to HuffPo SA, asking how they found Garland, if they were aware that she apparently didn’t exist, and what they planned to do about it.

HuffPo responded at once. Not by addressing Twiggs’s questions, of course, but by continuing to pump out Tweets advertising Pillay’s follow-up column.

Undeterred, Twiggs persisted, bombarding HuffPo staff with questions, even Tweeting Arianna Huffington and her successor, Lydia Polgreen, to inform them that their South African pup had just left a large turd on the carpet.

Of Pillay there was no sign, except for a couple of Tweets about geopolitics and her favourite flavour of hot cross buns.

But then, just as Saturday evening arrived, a full 24 hours after Twiggs had first raised the alarm, she re-appeared…

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The “Garland” piece was gone. So, too, was Pillay’s “Hey look at all the hits the assholes are giving us!” follow-up. In their place was an explanation of why they’d taken them down.

“We have done this” wrote Pillay, “because the blog submission from an individual who called herself Shelley Garland, who claimed to be an MA student at UCT, cannot be traced and appears not to exist.”

Assuming that “Garland” told Pillay that she was at UCT (given her spelling of “Johannesberg” I can imagine her claiming to be at the University of Cap Toun), I would have thought a quick email to UCT might have been a good idea before they hit “Publish”. But maybe that’s unfair. I mean, clickbait waits for no man, whether real or imaginary, and checking Garland’s credentials would have taken precious time away from HuffPo’s busy schedule of cashing cheques from Sun International for explaining that golf is totally groovy in a drought-stricken, water-scarce country.

golf

But don’t worry. They’re not going to do it again. According to Pillay, they “will hold discussions on putting in place even better quality controls”.

Given the fact that they have just published a highly controversial, probably divisive piece, without having a clue who wrote it (or in the interests of which paymasters it was written), I have to ask about their “even better quality controls”: even better than what? Is Pillay planning to enlist a team of squirrels to do fact-checking, as opposed to the team of air molecules she’s been using until now?

It’s tempting to roll one’s eyes and laugh, or to dismiss this because it was “just a blog”, but Pillay and her team have done enormous damage to causes I’m sure they care about deeply.

For starters, they have handed megatons of ammunition to misogynist trolls, who will now cry, “See?! They’re so desperate they’re resorting to making stuff up!” Some of South Africa’s most prominent right-wing trolls are already making hay with this online.

Secondly, they have confirmed the current creeping paranoia that we cannot believe anything we read in the media.

Pillay has already contributed to this state of affairs. In February last year she had to apologise for a largely fabricated story in the Mail&Guardian claiming the Mmusi Maimane was being “tutored” by FW de Klerk.

Of course, HuffingtonPost SA is not the Mail & Guardian. I don’t know anyone who takes HuffPo SA seriously as a credible news source. But it is part of the Media24 stable and its stories regularly appear on News24, the country’s most widely read news site. Given this debacle, News24 readers would be forgiven for becoming more suspicious than ever.

Just one day before she signed off on this fakery, Pillay was quoted in an article on Al Jazeera titled “Fake news ‘symptomatic of crisis in journalism”.

Al Jazeera
I’ll ignore, for now, her use of the word “audience” to describe readers, with all its implications of passive, wide-eyed consumers wanting to be entertained rather than informed. Likewise, I’m going to give her the benefit of enormous amounts of doubt and assume that this was simply rank incompetence on her part rather than an example of “open disdain” towards her audience. After all, she knows about how important vetting is: at the end of March she published this…

Fact Checking HuffPo
But if HuffingtonPost South Africa had a shred of credibility left, it has evaporated along with Shelley Garland.

South African journalism – underpaid, understaffed, under pressure – cannot afford this kind of ineptitude. When people no longer believe what they read, journalism loses its ability to shine a light in dark places. And when that happens, we’re all in deep trouble.

But perhaps there is a silver lining to this mess. Perhaps we can use it as a reminder of the importance of proper editors running proper newspapers staffed by proper journalists.

So, in the coming week, how about we all go out and pay actual money for a copy of our favourite newspaper or news magazine? How about we support actual journalism?

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Looking for clicks, hunting for ticks

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Oh, just catching up on the news. (Pic from tacugama.com)

The other day I sat watching a small troop of baboons, and it got me thinking about journalists and editors who write clickbait headlines.

The apes were resting in the shade after a long morning of babooning. A couple of pre-teens threw themselves around in a tree, a Circe de Soleil version of tag, but nobody paid them any attention. It was time to relax. And that meant it was time to groom.

At first, their touch seemed casual and mechanical. Fingers poked around in fur, fishing out critters and seeds that were popped into mouths with unthinking haste. But as it went on and on, as repetitive and lightly engaged as a meditation, it revealed its true purpose. This wasn’t a group of apes pulling ticks off each other. This was a clan, affirming its togetherness. Long after they’d picked one another clean, they continued to touch and stroke, to tease out tangles, to part fur, earnestly and carefully, that they had already combed. They soothed and reassured.

There is a delightful theory, most famously presented by evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar, that suggests human language evolved from these sorts of grooming sessions. Even more pleasingly, the theory suggests that we still get together to stroke each other’s fur.

I’m not allowed to go up to a colleague and start scratching around in their hair. I’m definitely not allowed to root around in their ears and nostrils and eat whatever I find. But I am allowed to do something else with members of my clan that strengthens our bond, that affirms my place in the group and that reminds us all of those we can trust and those we can’t. I am allowed to gossip.

Gossip, Dunbar suggests, is simply what happens when apes learn to speak. And it is inextricably bound up with who we are. Gossip has been damned by religious texts; condemned as “womanly” by patriarchal systems; dismissed as stupid by intellectual snobs; but still it thrives. And that’s because it feeds and delights a part of us that is older than the oldest religious text or puritanical government: our sociable and curious monkey soul.

Which brings me back to clickbait.

Recently, I’ve become unable to read the news.

I want to. Well, I feel compelled to, which is the 21st-century version of wanting something. I even make it through the headline and some of the first paragraph. But then I stop because it suddenly feels like I might have to hurry to the toilet and regurgitate a long column of pulpy, print-smeared newspaper.

“I can’t stand it any more”

Concerned that I was being unreasonably fragile, I ran an informal poll on social media, asking my fellow sufferers on Facebook and Twitter for their emotional response to the news these days. The response was overwhelming. Given the options “I can’t get enough”, “It’s satisfying”, “I can’t take it or leave it”, and “I can’t stand it any more”, almost 60% replied that they, like me, couldn’t stand it any more. When I asked that gloomy demographic if they consumed the news anyway, almost 70% answered, “Yes, I can’t stop.”

I know this poll was unscientific and prone to all sorts of biases. The few hundred people who replied were also a self-selecting group: I ran it on a Sunday night, the natural habitat of grumpy internet addicts who know they should be reading a book or going to bed but are instead sitting on Facebook and Twitter. But I don’t think I’m wrong to suggest that more and more people – perhaps most – are feeling soul-sick when confronted with the day’s headlines.

Clickbait is lazy and insulting. It has convinced many people that media are being hollowed out by shills. But if most people are being flooded with bad feelings when they engage with news, I can understand why you’d stop appealing to their critical faculties and go straight for their monkey soul. If people can’t stomach facts any more, or are losing faith in them, why not offer them fact that looks like gossip – an invitation to groom?

I’m not suggesting that we abolish journalism and turn the great newspapers into pictures of listicles on Instagram. But our relationship with facts and the media that present them is creaking, and editors who believe in facts must adapt.

Baboons might be a good place to start, reminding us that grooming isn’t about finding ticks, just as gossip isn’t about sharing information. We don’t compulsively follow the news because we want to know what’s happening in the US or Syria. We follow it because we need to touch and be touched by other apes.

If Dunbar is right, our words evolved from gentle, patient fingers in fur. But if they evolve so far that they forget their origins – if they lose their power to bond people together – then what use are they?

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Published in The Times