Clickbaiting: people are naturally curious – and that goes for everyone

Clickbaiting describes the practice of intentionally arousing human curiosity and provoking certain behaviour – specifically, clicking on more information. The bait is set in the form of a sensational headline that serves to appeal to our baser instincts.

The promise of easy money, good looks and incredible health – with the help of super simple life hacks – triggers our interest. The tragic fates of animals or celebrities also guarantee a high level of attention. These topics are formulated in such a way that they create what’s known as a ‘curiosity gap’ or ‘information gap’. Readers are only given a minimal amount of information – just enough to make them curious. However, this curiosity will not be satisfied – similar to a cliffhanger at the end of a TV series episode.

What’s actually hidden behind the links that are offered can vary greatly. It’s usually content that contains a tiny amount of information, peppered with an enormous amount of advertising. Each click a visitor gives equals cash for the companies that place advertisements on the website.

This is why their victims are encouraged to keep clicking on things, such as image series that also generate new advertisements every time a new photo is viewed.

Representatives of the tabloid press, such as BILD, Bunte and Gala, have known how to lure in their readers for decades. The Internet has made it even easier to target people now, especially via pertinent social networks and free news portals. Print media cost the reader money. This money has to be spent actively, creates a certain degree of inhibition and provokes the question of how valuable the investment truly is.

Conversely, in the digital environment, people pay with attention and interaction. Thoughtlessly clicking something doesn’t create any tangible costs. The actual price is created by the immediately and subliminally perceived advertisement that pops up in the readers’ field of view.

So, what can you do to recognise clickbaiting and not fall victim to your baser instincts?

First and foremost, it helps to have a basic awareness of the topic in combination with a little scepticism and a dash of common sense. The basic identifying features of clickbaiting are:

1. The address

Typical clickbait features are used in the headline or brief description, such as

  • Exaggeration – gratuitous use of superlatives
  • Sensation – ‘This has never happened before’
  • Secrets – ‘Solved at last’
  • The headline could also be in the tabloid Bild – ‘Be careful if your parents get THIS message’
  • Individual words in CAPITAL LETTERS – see previous point
2. The topic

Are topics being addressed that promise simple content and are usually used by less reputable providers? Does the topic lead you to assume that it has been professionally prepared because it’s specialised and complex, for example – in other words, not suitable for the masses?

3. The environment

Where are you right now? Are you reading on a website or app that’s known for quality journalism? Are you familiar with the author?

Fortunately, clickbait is more annoying than it is harmful. Ultimately, however, it can be a gateway for other threats that have a much higher potential of causing damage. Those who take the bait are probably also more susceptible to social engineering attacks, such as phishing. By the way, you can read more about phishing in the blog post written by my colleague Vivien Emily Schiller

Hoax

Amazingly, hoaxes based on false news always manage to spread with incredible speed. Even though there’s no incentive for profit, the methods are very similar to clickbaiting.

Sensational news is designed in such a way that it virtually spreads on its own. The way it does so is very similar to a chain letter, but with the added capabilities of what social media and digital communication can bring to the table.

Examples:

  • Conspiracy theories: ‘The government is using planes to rain down chemicals (known as chemtrails) on the population in order to manipulate them.’
  • Uncertainties: ‘To all parents: sherbet packets filled with new drugs are being passed around in school playgrounds.’
  • Scandals/Scare stories: ‘Mutations caused by baking powder!’
  • Bargains/Easy money: ‘Bill Gates is giving money to everyone who shares this message.’
  • Insider tips: ‘Become a millionaire with a simple monthly investment of just €10.’
  • Petitions: Donations for non-existent persons.

Hoaxes are often about unsettling people and exploiting their readiness to believe things. One particularly popular form of hoax actually causes harm.

Fake warnings about Trojans and viruses hiding in certain files are circulating the Internet. Users are told that immediately deleting these files will protect them from further damage. However, anyone who heeds this warning doesn’t delete malware, instead they delete important system files and subsequently destroy the functionality of their computer. Reinstalling the operating system is time-consuming and inconvenient. Worse yet, this could even result in data loss.

Before you delete data on your own, it’s important you make sure that the notification is legitimate. If the virus mentioned does actually exist, it will be corroborated by many independent sources. If there’s no available information on it, it’s most likely an attempt to deceive you.

The same recommendations given for avoiding clickbait apply to avoiding becoming a victim of a hoax: be attentive and critical! It’s also possible to verify whether these notifications are true on your own. One way to do so is to use websites that list well-known hoaxes, such as Mimikama, an Austrian association for Internet abuse education, whose slogan is ‘Think first – then click

Conclusion

Clickbaiting and hoaxes are not always easy to recognise. Nevertheless, there are some ways to detect shady content. Both of these topics can be classified under the umbrella terms ‘social engineering’ and ‘fake news’ and are more annoying than they are dangerous.

Manipulating people can also entail consequences that are even more unpleasant. Surely not every careless click will drive you into the clutches of criminals. Nevertheless, one wrong click can lead to you becoming a victim of fraud, extortion and data loss.

As for the title of this article – of course it was chosen to get your attention. And what about the authenticity of these gold finds in Germany? Easter is just around the corner – keep your eyes peeled for delicious chocolate eggs wrapped in shiny gold packaging. That may not be exactly what the headline suggested. But the fact that you’ve followed the article this far proves that I’ve had at least a little success in manipulating you into reading it.

By the way, you can find out how we support companies on topics in the security environment, why cyber and information security is an important aspect and what our concrete services in this area look like on our website.

Would you like to learn more about exciting topics from the world of adesso? Then check out our latest blog posts.

Picture Tobias  Dieter

Author Tobias Dieter

Tobias Dieter has been working for adesso as a Managing Consultant in the areas of information security, IT service management and data protection since 2022. One of his main areas of work is the conception and implementation of security awareness campaigns.

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