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If you got to this page by way of Facebook, or other social media, you probably got here by clicking on an image that looks like this:

This is an image I pulled off Facebook, and tweaked the text at the bottom. The person in the image is television host and political commentator Rachel Maddow. The original text (before I modified it)  read: "Trump supporters, protestors clash in Chicago/Violence erupts inside postponed rally."

So let me explain what's going on here. Facebook allows web desigers to make use of something called "open graph" icons to give people a hint of what the post is about. If you assign an open graph icon to your blog post, when someone shares it on facebook, that image is what appears in their facebook feed, above the page's title and description.

But dishonest websites like to "trick" people into clicking their links. They think, "Oh, my article isn't interesting enough that people will want to visit my page. But if they think it's a video, they'll click it, because they think it'll play right in their Facebook page without loading an entirely new page. So I'll take a still shot from a video, make sure it has the little red play icon in the middle, and it will be completely indistinguishable from a video!" (There's even a WordPress plug-in that'll help you create that "here's a video" deception.)

An icon is "a person or thing regarded as a representative symbol of something." Icons have meanings. The little red rounded rectangle with a triangle in it has a specific meaning. It means "This is a video. Click to start watching." It does not mean, "Hey, my website has a video, and if you click here, I'll show you about 500 ads, and then, if you can manage to locate it, you can click another arrow icon that means what you expected this one to mean."

Why didn't they just post the video? Because if they post the video, people might not click through to their website, and if people don't click through to their website, they won't get ad impressions on their site, and they won't get revenue.

And the "pretend video" image isn't the only kind of click-bait out there, of course. You have articles with titles like, "You won't believe what happened next..." and "This will completely destroy Obama's presidency..." and "This video had me crying at 1:24..." and you can't resist the urge to click, even though you know it's not going to make you cry, it's not going to end anyone's presidency (or candidacy) and when you've finished reading/watching, you're going to wish you hadn't wasted your time.

But you just can't resist clicking...

To make matters worse, many click-bait sites masquerade as right-wing "news" sites or left-wing "news" sites. I say "masquerade" because most of them have no inclination to do any fact checking. They expect you to do their fact checking for them. Actually, scratch that. They don't expect any such thing. They assume that you'll see their page, recognize that they hold to the same core left/right values as they do, and therefore assume that anything they say must be true.

The only thing that's more insane than the stuff that gets reported on these "news" sites is the masses of people who - apparently without thought - like and share it.

Don't be gullible. You're a smart person. You know how to think for yourself, and do a little research.

My general policy is, when I see click-bait titles or "fake video" images, I don't click them, because I don't want to help click-bait sites get any income. The more we encourage them, the more they proliferate. But in this case, since I've been wanting to write this blog post, I bit the bullet and clicked through.

The page I got to when I clicked the "breaking news" image was so filled with advertising that when I found the actual video on the page, the video would not stop scrolling out of view over and over again for about 20 seconds, while advertising filled in all around it. I'm not exaggerating.

There was a brief associated article, which said absolutely nothing that added anything to the video. That in itself ought to cause you to ask: "Why does the page even exist?"

The answer is: the page exists to earn money. And that's not necessarily a bad thing. But, if a page exists only to earn money, adds no value to content that exists elsewhere, places no value on positive user experience, or places no value on truth, then it's a page that probably shouldn't exist.

The problem is, once people have been sucked into the vortex of a click-bait site, if they like the video (or other content) they saw there, they feel as though their best option is to share it from the depths of the cesspool. 

But here's the thing. You're not stuck sharing their version. Because you're a smart individual, and you value your friends far too much to make them suffer through the same foolishness that you just suffered through. You're intelligent enough - all you have to do is run a search engine query to find a better version of the content somewhere else. In fact, you already did that when you fact-checked the content! (Right?) In the case of my example, I just searched for "Rachel Maddow Trump protest" in google, and found the original video.

Share original content, not desperate click-bait copycats. All your friends will thank you.

And then, just to complete your helpfulness, go back to facebook, find the click-bait link you clicked on, and report it to Facebook, telling them that it's spam, or that it's unhelpful content, or whichever reporting option you find most appropriate. Facebook actually has stated on their blog that they want to eliminate click-bait, and are steering their algorithms in that direction. Give them a helping hand.

Please do your part to resist click-bait. Because you're smarter than that.

Understanding Coronavirus Spread

A Question and Answer session with Professor Puzzler about the math behind infection spread.

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