Study exposes how Facebook ‘clickbait’ entices users into reading posts

NORTH RHINE-WESTPHALIA, Germany — It’s hardly a secret that social media isn’t the best use of our time. Still, millions keep on scrolling, clicking, and commenting for hours on end. Now, researchers from the University of Duisburg-Essen have documented some of the unique ways headlines on Facebook “bait” users into interacting with posts.

The general topic of “clickbait” in journalism has grown into a major issue during the online age. Websites need clicks to generate revenue, and oftentimes that means eye-catching titles and stories that are more fluff than fact. This study’s authors set out to investigate how exactly specific clickbait “characteristics” seen in Facebook posts (headlines, texts) influence engagement. User engagement was measured by reactions, comments, and shares.

Clickbait to make people click on a linked article is commonly used on social media. We analyze the impact of clickbait on user interaction on Facebook in the form of liking, sharing and commenting. For this, we use a dataset of more than 4,000 Facebook posts from 10 different news sources to analyze how clickbait in post headlines and in post text influences user engagement,” study authors say in a media release.

“While clickbait is commonly used, digital nudging is still on the rise and shares similarities with clickbait – yet being essentially different in its nature. The study discusses this common ground.”

What makes a Facebook story click-worthy?

The posts assessed for this research were gathered over seven consecutive days in late 2017 from both U.S. and U.K. news outlets on Facebook. The news outlets ranged from “reputable” to “tabloid.” Things have changed somewhat since 2017, but at that time, Facebook was the number one social network for news consumption.

The investigation reached a number of fascinating findings:

  • Unusual headline punctuation was linked to up to 2.5 times more reactions, shares, and comments. Oddly enough, when used in the post text, however, it was associated with a decline in shares.
  • Questions, either in the headline or post text itself, were not associated with any increased interactions.
  • When a headline used long words, it was associated with reduced post interactions. However, the opposite held true in the post text: longer words fostered more engagement.
  • Doubling the number of headline words produced 23.7 percent fewer comments, yet no changes regarding reactions or shares. Again, the opposite held true for the post text; all engagement indicators increased if the word count doubled.
  • Common headline clickbait phrases (this will blow your mind!) were linked to losing around a quarter of reactions, shares, and comments in comparison to other articles with less gimmicky titles.
  • Negative wording in posts can increase comments, but when it comes to headlines, a positive tone increases comments.

Researchers did not have access to click data, so that couldn’t be included in the analysis. Nonetheless, study authors believe their work is invaluable in terms of better understanding what “nudges” people to comment on certain posts and ignore others.

The study is published in the journal PLoS ONE.

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