Power

Why are Newsweek and The New York Times using troll tactics for clicks?

There’s a new form of clickbait in town, and it doesn’t work.
Power

Why are Newsweek and The New York Times using troll tactics for clicks?

There’s a new form of clickbait in town, and it doesn’t work.

Earlier this month, Newsweek tweeted an article with the added text “Former House Speaker Dennis Hastert explains what’s wrong with Trump’s Congress.” Hastert, who I recently wrote about, is an admitted child molester and convicted felon. Naturally, it rubbed people the wrong way that a mainstream news outlet would not only ask him for input, but position him as representative of a political golden age. The tweet in question soon garnered what we now call “the ratio” — an abnormally high proportion of (often angry) replies compared to retweets and likes — which, in this case, was about 11 to 1. But after opening the article, the initial outrage becomes hard to sustain. The bulk of the text is dedicated to reviewing One Nation Under Trump, the latest book coauthored by liberal Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne. Writer Alexander Nazaryan largely agrees with the book’s thesis that Reps. Newt Gingrich and Dennis Hastert set Congress on a path toward dysfunction and right-wing extremism. Toward the end of the article, he asks both Gingrich and Hastert for comment by phone. Only Hastert could be reached, and the few dull sound bites he provided are quoted after an acknowledgement of his sexual assaults and prison sentence.

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There is certainly room to criticize Newsweek for allowing Hastert to speak at all, but here we must point out an important, and unnerving, distinction: the article itself bears little resemblance to the one teased on Twitter. Hastert isn’t painted positively in the article (he’s called a “swamp creature”) and his only comment on “Trump’s Congress” is that “the Senate has lost some of its congeniality.” On Twitter, Newsweek created the impression that Nazaryan was framing a child molester as preferable to Trump in the way some liberals have tried to rehabilitate George W. Bush. Why amplify this comparatively small aspect of the article out of context? Dennis Hastert isn’t in the news, his name doesn’t get search traffic, and no one likes him. The only plausible explanation is that Newsweek knew it would make people angry.

This insidious trend in which influential news organizations promote the most incendiary part of an otherwise milquetoast article on social media has unfortunately become the norm. It’s like clickbait, but more irritating and less profitable. The New York Times, our most august defender of democracy, uses this strategy in what is either the most cynical or most idiotic of ways. Earlier this week, they tweeted out a tepid column on sexual harassment by Canadian anti-housework advocate Stephen Marche using a fragment of its worst line: “Opinion: If you let boys be boys, they will murder their fathers and sleep with their mothers.” (Ratio: 5,600 replies to 1,400 retweets.) Obviously, Marche doesn’t literally believe America’s children are acting out the Oedipus myth. The full line reads like so: “The idea of the Oedipus complex contained an implicit case for the requirements of strenuous repression: If you let boys be boys, they will murder their fathers and sleep with their mothers.” The point of the piece, titled “The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido,” is that masculinity, on some level, contains an inherent threat of violence. “It is not morality but culture — accepting our monstrosity, reckoning with it — that can save us,” Marche writes.

It’s a stupid column, but that only compounds the frustration of seeing thousands of people rip into it for the wrong reason. The replies, which mostly came from conservatives, reasonably assumed that “Opinion: If you let boys be boys, they will murder their fathers and sleep with their mothers” meant that the “opinion” in question was “if you let boys be boys, they will murder their fathers and sleep with their mothers.” To this, the reactions contained a mix of disbelief and glee. One woman with #MAGA in her bio, handle “artist35,” replied “You have finally went off the deep end NYT. The Oedipus Complex has been debunked a very long time ago. I know you're Fake News, but try and keep up.” Some earnestly argued with the idea that all boys are patricide risks: “So if you are using the Oedipus complex to right [sic] your story does that mean if you let girls be girls they’ll murder their mothers and sleep with their fathers? Cause that is a thing also,” replied a seemingly adult man who otherwise mostly tweets about Pokemon.

Some users called this clickbait. That’s the right impulse, but an article has to encourage clicks before it can be clickbait. That doesn’t appear to be the case here, since the vast majority of replies only addressed the sentence fragment about Oedipus. Did the guy who replied with a picture of Calvin pissing on the antifa logo click through to the article? Probably not, and neither did the thousands of dullards who swarmed in after YouTube conspiracy theorist Mark Dice quote-tweeted it. If people aren’t clicking through, they certainly aren’t subscribing. What, then, does it accomplish? It gets people who are generally averse to reading and dismissive of journalism talking about the Times, sure, but isn’t that what the president is for?

Even worse, the Times published several braindead right-wing articles last week that were exactly as dumb as their taglines suggested. One profiled a young neo-Nazi from Ohio, but failed to thoroughly interrogate his beliefs or why he came to hold them. The main takeaway seemed to be that Nazis go grocery shopping and watch movies just like us, which is a fairly dull observation to risk normalizing Nazism for. The article was bland, forgettable and utterly pointless from a journalistic standpoint. If it had been about a topic less likely to attract negative attention, I imagine the editors would have spiked it. In this case, they decided to wring some shock value out of a sunk cost. The reaction was almost universally negative, forcing the Times to add a disclaimer: “This article has drawn significant feedback, most of it sharply critical.”

Another article last week heaped praise upon Ben Shapiro, the conservative campus pest attempting to recast himself as a #NeverTrump intellectual after a failed run writing fake news for Breitbart. “Mr. Shapiro, conservative thinker, entertainer, trash talker and destroyer of weak arguments, has been called the voice of the conservative millennial movement,” reporter Sabrina Tavernise writes. It couldn’t have been more complimentary if Shapiro wrote it himself. This profile contains what may be the worst sentence ever: “Mr. Shapiro, 33, a graduate of Harvard Law School, is the cool kid’s philosopher, dissecting arguments with a lawyer’s skill and references to Aristotle.” In reality, Shapiro started his career sucking up to grownups and scolding his own age group for masturbating with decidedly uncool books like 2004’s Brainwashed: How Universities Indoctrinate America's Youth and 2005’s Porn Generation: How Social Liberalism Is Corrupting Our Future. His schtick a decade later is still to antagonize college students with high-pitched sophistry for an audience of old men, but this time around his takedowns of feminism are on YouTube and he has a small fanbase of frat boys who appreciate his contrarian stance on rape culture.

Given that the notion that Shapiro leads a genuine youth movement falls apart upon the slightest prodding, why publish the article at all? None of Shapiro’s fans are reading the Times (they abhor the mainstream media, plus they can only absorb information through YouTube) and the profile does nothing to enlighten liberals on why him and his Young Republican ilk enjoy continued success. (Hint: big money donors.) The objective, it seems, is to provoke liberals into momentarily thinking about The New York Times by any means necessary. Acting out for attention — this is the logic of children.

Every so often, these attempts to troll readers actually drive some traffic. Slate, BuzzFeed, Esquire, and Vox all published responses to the Nazi profile, and most of the journalists who were performatively outraged about it on Twitter seem to have actually read the article, even if only to screenshot the worst paragraphs. However, most of the time the ill-gotten attention is confined to Twitter. No one clicks, no one sees any ads, and the net benefit to the publication, if they’re lucky, is zero. Antagonizing readers isn’t just pointless, but actively counterproductive. Now that the business model of online journalism is predicated on pleading with readers to disable AdBlock, publications would be well advised to stop trolling us.

Alex Nichols is a contributing writer at The Outline. He previously wrote about the Democrats who are defending Sen. Al Franken.