I’ve used up the Internet. It took me a while, but after being connected every waking hour of the day for a decade or so, I’ve finally come to the end of the online world as we know it. And because I’ve run out of real information to look at, I’ve taken to clicking on misleading ads and fake news – not because “what happened next will blow your mind” or because I want to see why “number five is genius,” but because I am intensely curious about how liars do their lying, both from a business standpoint and from a creative standpoint.
I mean, what’s the real story behind “Cinnamon Roll Can Explodes Inside Man’s Butt During Shoplifting Incident”? If it’s not true (and it’s not), why did somebody go through the trouble of making it up?
I’m not particularly interested in outright lies like “Obama Signs Executive Order Banning The Pledge of Allegiance” or sloppy mistruths like the Time magazine reporter who visited the White House and tweeted that Donald Trump had removed a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. from the Oval Office (when in truth somebody was simply standing in front of it). Instead, I’m fascinated by the half-truths and misdirection employed by click-bait websites who are hoping to con you into looking at their ad-packed slide shows.
It all began when I saw an online headline a few years ago that screamed “You’ll Never Believe Who Gene Wilder’s Daughter Is!” Now, it would be safe to say that I have a black belt in music trivia and at least a red belt in movie trivia. I may not know how algebra works (when my kids turned 10 or so they began to offer me advice on math problems), but I can tell you that the guy who directed Iron Man also starred as a hilarious stoner in the underrated comedy PCU more than a decade earlier.
So I was stunned that I didn’t know that Gene Wilder had a famous daughter. Understanding that I was going to be buried under a metric ton of advertisements, I clicked anyway, just to see what I had missed. Of course I was introduced to a massive slide show. (Heaven forbid I would get the information I was looking for straight away.) I pushed through a dozen or so slides about other famous celebrity kids that the author deemed “surprising.” (Charlie Sheen is Martin Sheen’s son? Stop the presses!) And then I got to the end of the slide show.
They didn’t even bother to acknowledge their own headline. Gene Wilder’s daughter wasn’t featured at all. And do you know why? Because – bless her heart – she is a regular, non-famous person who avoids the media. Oddly, I wasn’t angered by the bait and switch, but fascinated by the fact that the Internet is so hungry for content that we’ve stopped even trying to make it look true or accurate.
Click on a story with a headline like “Why Hollywood Won’t Cast Taylor Lautner Anymore,” and you will get a story filled with information you already know. “After he made some bad movies, people stopped hiring him.” What? How scandalous! As long as the headline is interesting, the rest of the story doesn’t even matter.
Or follow a headline like “What Kathleen Turner Looks Like Today Will Take Your Breath Away!” Guess what? She looks like a normal woman who is in her sixties. That will only take your breath away if you were expecting her to look like a motorcycle.
I love stories with the word “hack” anywhere in the headline. “This Mom Hacked Mac And Cheese And Your Lunch Will Never Be The Same!” Is it really a “hack” if she adds bacon to mac and cheese? Or ketchup? Or pudding? You would never see that headline before the advent of the Internet because it isn’t newsworthy – and telling us that it is news is a very subtle but no-less disappointing lie.
You see, the biggest problem with today’s fake news may not be that it’s fake, but that it isn’t even news. When TV news was on twice a day and people actually watched it, a reporter had a lot of time to put together something meaningful. Now an amateur reporter may feel the need to post news ten times a day simply to keep up. There just isn’t enough real news to go around, people. So instead, the web has become choked with big lies (FBI Agent Suspected In Hillary Email Leaks Found Dead In Apartment Murder-Suicide) and small lies (When You Find Out What These Kids Are Jumping Into, Your Jaw Will Drop!) because they are oh so much easier and faster than the truth.
The truth takes work. It is hard, and it can be time consuming. Using a clever headline to get attention is good business, but it’s only half the job.
I may have reached the end of the Internet but I won’t be the last. You may have reached it too, sitting at the airport, putting down your phone and saying “now what?” If providers don’t create good, honest content, more and more people are going to answer “now what?” by going someplace else to alleviate their boredom.
Just like the guy with the cinnamon rolls in his butt (nope – still not true), the web is ready to go boom. Whether it explodes with the truth or with more lies is up to all of us.