If you use an aggregator or visit sites like Buzzsumo for your social media news, you probably saw multiple news stories today about a single event that seems important but actually isn't. Actually, this happens every other day on the internet, but I'm using today's example as a jumping off point, so here we go:
The headline on all these stories was some variation on "Unfriending on Facebook is Now Considered Bullying, Says Tribunal." The story, as described in every one of the posts, is that a tribunal in Australia that addresses workplace conflicts found that when the wife (who was also a co-worker) of the boss at a real estate company unfriended a subordinate on Facebook, it "showed a 'lack of emotional maturity" towards the subordinate, and was 'indicative of unreasonable behavior," and was declared to be bullying.
The problem is that in every single post about this conflict, all context is stripped away or completely avoided until the final few paragraphs that very few readers are unlikely to read all the way through. (Read the comments here and it's blatantly obvious nobody read the whole article, too eager were they to register their disgust.)
To provide the context the headlines lacked: The conflict started when, by the complainant's version of events, properties were not being displayed fairly in the office window. Then the boss's wife called the complainant a "naughty little schoolgirl running to the teacher" in a meeting in front of colleagues. It was after these events that the complainant was unfriended.
The complainant was later diagnosed with depression and anxiety and was deemed unfit to work by a psychologist. So basically, in at least one side of the story the unfriending was not the actual bullying, but perhaps the final component of a longer-simmering conflict. And there might be further unreported context not even addressed by these news stories.
Furthermore, for all the importance the headlines give the tribunal's decision, it has no real power in this situation. It cannot impose fines or real penalties on employers. It merely (as one article explains in its final paragraph) can "oblige the employer and employee to meet to resolve the situation." But the headlines for this story would have you believe some powerful and officious body had laid down a devastating ruling from on high.
But the context is irrelevant. The headlines are clearly designed to flip the righteous indignation switches we all have deep inside of us. "That's bullying!? The word has lost all meaning!" we're meant to think as we click away.
This isn't new. Attention-grabbing headlines have long been used to grab an audience's eyeballs, but if anything has changed in the past decade it is that these kind of tricky titles have gone from a hook that tries to get consumers to read the more substantive pieces (in print), to trying to get your reader lost in a sea of clickbait (online). When every single click represents more revenue, every single article must be reoriented toward that goal. Just look at the space surrounding the actual text of the article in the Daily Mail.
My God, it's full of links! Screenshot Via Daily Mail website.
The thing is, this is no longer the purview of sensationalist rags like the Daily Mail or the New York Post. Vox does it. Slate is famous for it, with headlines so counter-intuitive and dumb-rhetorical that they have their own joking headline style in the #SlatePitch. As reporter Dave Weigel, who has written for Slate, has said: If the headline is asking a rhetorical yes or no question, the answer is almost certainly no.
This sort of caution should be applied more widely, lest we find ourselves being lead by the nose to greater amounts of misinformation, all while filling the coffers of those who are ever more reluctant to provide us with accurate news.