Generate your own Facebook outrage links

Under pressure for spreading fake news, Facebook tweaked its algorithm (yet again) to prioritize “authentic” content. If you like to share stories on Facebook that are engineered more to generate outrage rather than convey facts, your online followers are supposedly less likely to see the clickbait headlines in what Facebook calls its news feed. Don’t worry, this post has a solution for you knicker-knotters.

First a little background.

Clickbait headlines are ones that promise a story that’s much more emotionally satisfying in some way than what’s actually delivered. I have written headlines for a living and can testify that mainstream news organizations want their headlines to be compelling too, but without over-promising. A news organization that values a reputation for accuracy and wants lifetime subscribers is not going to risk letting its readers down each time they click. Even the more tabloid-oriented news organizations use sensationalism sparingly, and have other tools to make headlines compelling: celebrity name-dropping, clever wording, and paying real journalists to do the reporting and editing that allows them to honestly boast the story is “exclusive” or “breaking.”

A sensational headline based on sensational facts is not clickbait or fake news. Those terms lose meaning unless properly reserved to describe headlines and stories that are exaggerated beyond reality or deliberately misleading. Some of the cliches that infest headlines on social media (You won’t believe…the 17 best…will change your life) may be attached to clickbait, or they may link to truly useful or entertaining content. If I am looking for good ramen in Santa Monica, it really doesn’t matter to me if the headline uses some tired change-your-life trope as long as it links to a well-researched, up-to-date list of restaurants.

This post is about shameless fake news sites and their close relatives, the left- or right-leaning websites that propagandize followers with headlines that are hysterical—in the screeching, humorless, paranoid sense of that word.

I have become friends with several people whose morning ritual is to share links to these shameless sites. So here’s some advice to get around the algorithm blockade. Don’t bother to link. Write your own headlines, using the guide below, inspired by the work of satirists over the decades, from Spy magazine to the website that generates fake Upworthy headlines. All you have to do is randomly match one from column A with one from column B and so on.

I could go on but you get the idea. Now you may be wondering: What good does this do if you are not linking your headline to an actual website or blog post? The answer is that the emotional rush of outrage is the same whether or not your followers click through, if they were stupid enough to do so anyway.

Do writers choose the wrong word by accident?

Something is terribly wrong. A crash. A cloud of smoke or dust. If you are on the road and traffic has stopped, you’re probably thinking, “There has been an accident.” But if you are in a newsroom and know only that something seems to have crashed or blown up, you really have to think about what words to use. Mishap is usually to too weak and inconsequential to describe something that will make news, but calling it a disaster may be premature. Maybe accident?

Let’s see how that has played out recently.

Explosions at a warehouse in Tianjin, China in August 2015 eventually killed more than 120 people in what was widely reported as an accident, and not just by China’s official news agency.

China detained the owners of a hazardous-chemicals storage warehouse rocked by deadly explosions in Tianjin as authorities sought to discover the cause of the latest industrial accident to hit the country. — Bloomberg News.

It is it not uncommon for the news media to describe a disaster as an accident even if it is being investigated or prosecuted as a crime. That falls within one of the dicScreen Shot 2015-08-24 at 8.38.25 PMtionary definitions of accident: “an unpleasant and unintended happening, sometimes resulting from negligence, that results in injury, loss, damage, etc. (Webster’s New World College Dictionary). But somehow accident doesn’t feel like a neutral word, because it has a forgiving connotation. It skirts the issue of blame, like apologizing with a passive admission that “mistakes were made.”

When an underground explosion started a fire in a coal mine in Turkey in May 2014, killing 301 workers, The New York Times called it “Turkey’s worst mining accident.” In a one-year anniversary followup the newspaper quoted the widow of one of the victims as saying, “To call it an accident is sinful — it was coldblooded murder.” Lax enforcement of safety standards was at least a contributing cause to the high death toll even if the proximate cause of the tragedy was a transformer fire. Managers and inspectors were accused of negligence and put on trial in a case still dragging on.

A lot of tragedies involve complex sequences of events. In July 2013, an oil train derailed in Quebec, Canada, caught fire, exploded and destroyed more than 30 buildings, killing 47 people. Canadian media were still calling it an accident a year later when investigators documented failings including insufficient brakes, a bad engine repair and inadequate regulatory oversight.

The collapse of a building full of garment factories in Bangladesh that killed 1,129 people in 2013 eventually resulted in murder charges against 41 people. Regardless of the verdicts, the disaster will be forever enshrined on lists of “worst accidents.”