The 10 commandments of fake news clickbait

I have recently been inundated by a growing number of fake news. Half of them are generated by sites supporting political ideas or people. The rest are just leveraging on my curiosity or on my empathy.  The first category may appear a legitimate attempt to promote what would be a recommended best choice. Unfortunately that is rarely true.


During the American election it was discovered that a good share of web sites promoting ideas close to what Trump’s supporters would concur with, were just small commercial enterprises based around the world. BuzzFeed News identified more than 100 pro-Trump websites being run from a single town in Macedonia. The aim was just to fish viewers so as to generate ad revenues.  This is the impact of click-bait economy: the content does not matter, just the number of clicks.

Editors of other sites – and of ad-hoc Facebook accounts – just search the net for current or past stories whose content can be plagiarized, maybe changing location and date, to solicit the viewer to read the story.  In most cases the link brings to a page containing a few lines of text and lots of ads. To read an entire article one may have to click several times to go to the following page.  Unfortunately, even legitimate online political magazines have access to the same revenue sources.fakeBut, how much can be earned paying this game?  According to Mani Gandham, the content itself, especially at 1 article a day, is not going to get anywhere near enough traffic to matter these days. They’ll probably make cents, or maybe dollars on the high end, per month. Many clickbait sites, however, aren’t about the content but about playing the ad industry through arbitrage and fraud.

Google has a leading role in this business. This year, Google will generate $57.80 billion in total digital ad revenue worldwide, an increase of 9.0% over last year. Every time someone does a search on Google, an AdWords auction is created.  Advertisers bid on keywords in order to serve an ad which, when clicked upon, leads the searcher to a website landing page where a conversion goal, such as a lead generation or purchase, can be completed. The Google AdWords auction is based around two fundamental elements: keywords and cost-per-click (CPC) bidding. When any user clicks on your ad that appears in the search results, you get paid by Google.buzzfeed

A key role in phishing is played by headlines. Both to attract interest and because of included keywords that will increase the probability for the story to appear high among search results.  Is this a problem if the author does not have a great imagination and deep knowledge of how search engines work? Of course not. There are many sites where you just insert your possible headline and you will get one optimized for the purpose.

For instance, Poynter mentions “Clickbait Headline Generator“, which quickly gives you content like “Is Netflix CEO Reed Hastings getting high with Vladimir Putin?” and “Is John Kerry teasing Ben Affleck at your parents’ place?”

Throw some pictures under them, fire up Chartbeat and watch your Christmas bonus grow!

Actually, the headline of this post is a hook, generated with one of the online services. The original headline was “Fake news and click bait are a plague.” If you are still looking for ten commandments just stop reading.

Can anything be done aside from debunking ourselves each story that may be part of a perception campaign, or spreading fake stories?   There are indeed online tools that can be of help. If you use Chrome as browser, you can install the extension Stop Clickbait.  This extension works across multiple websites to identify clickbait content and notify it to the user. The user can block similar clickbait content (which works similar to adblock). It also has the option to remain undetected links as clickbait. The user can also report misclassified links which are detected as clickbait as not clickbait which helps in improving the extension. Currently works only on links in Facebook and Twitter.


Something indeed is moving. Google announced Monday night that it will stop allowing fake news sites to use its ad software. Facebook followed with a similar policy. “In accordance with the Audience Network Policy, we do not integrate or display ads in apps or sites containing content that is illegal, misleading or deceptive, which includes fake news,” Facebook said in a statement.  They certainly do it for commercial, not ethic reasons. Losing credibility means losing clicks, hence ads revenue. But maybe there is some light at the end of the tunnel.

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Handwriting better than copywriting

Mobility often imposes on us the use of digital devices. Smartphones and tablets have replaced desktops but also our writing pad.  It is so convenient and practical that we tend to use the new devices even when it would be equally practical to take or to send a hand note, or to talk a to a nearby person.  What we often do not consider is the effect this process has on our brain, and the long-term effectiveness of what we produce by only using digital tools.


image from

Several studies revealed that managing information only through digital devices affects our creativity and our ability to consider the broader context.

A study conducted in May (described in a paper entitled “High-Low Split: Divergent Cognitive Construal Levels Triggered by Digital and Non-Digital Platforms,” by  Geoff Kaufman and Mary Flanagan[1]) produced amazing results:   individuals who use devices like laptops, tablets and smartphones for reading purposes may focus more on concrete details rather than the bigger picture. The findings suggest excessive tech use may be influencing abstract thinking.

The study author Geoff Kaufman told The Huffington Post that participants in a survey were asked to fill out a Behavior Identification Form, which measures a person’s method of thinking when it comes to describing basic, everyday behaviors. Subjects were either “concrete thinkers,” describing actions in detail using facts, or “abstract thinkers” who attached meaning to actions instead of attaching concrete characteristics.

Print readers got 66 percent of the abstract questions correct on average, while the digital readers only answered 48 percent of them accurately. For concrete questions, digital readers got 73 percent correct while print readers got 58 percent correct.  Abstract thinking is good for long-term knowledge and strategy. Concrete thinking is better to solve immediate problems, using solutions not necessarily linked to a wider, longer term picture.zimmer-master675


But, what about writing?  Is there any effect on our brain when we use digital devices instead of handwriting?   Researchers from the University of Greifswald in Germany looked at this aspect. The brain becames very active during the creative process of writing, while during copywriting the brain did not show similar activity. Using a computer leads people to mindless processing. Ink-and-paper writing, on the other hand, supports brain processes beyond mere hearing and recording information.

According to the blog Live Lighter, this leads to a conclusion: it’s important to maintain a regular writing practice in order to support the creative processes in the brain. This is demonstrated also by another study: researchers from UCLA found that students who took notes in longhand achieved much better results than the group of students who used laptops to take notes by typing.

Here are the reasons given by the author of the Blog, Rachel Bartee, to go back to the old-school pen-and-paper method:

  • Handwriting activates thinking processes. It makes everything easier to remember, since it stimulates the brain to think while writing.
  • Although it takes more time to write the same sentence in handwriting when compared to typing, you shouldn’t perceive that as a disadvantage. In fact, it’s the perfect time you need for thinking as you write. Researchers found that note-taking with a pen gave people a better grasp of the presentation they were listening to.
  • Handwriting keeps your brain sharp. Since you have the time to form a visual impression of the things you write by hand, it’s easier for your mind to process and memorize more data.
  • Handwriting is important for cognitive development. A 2012 study showed that handwriting had an important influence over the brain activation when compared to typing. It is crucial for the early letter processing that leads to successful reading.
  • Writing on paper develops your fine motor skills. People with beautiful handwriting have impressive control over their hands.
  • One of the greatest benefits of handwriting is its autosuggestion effect. Do you remember how Bart Simpson had to write auto-suggestions on the chalkboard? Well, the technique works. When you repetitively write down sentences like “I will work harder” or “I will stay calm,” the suggestions tend to stick into your subconscious levels.

Digital is good but should not be our only solution…  It is better to teach our children not to relay solely on digital communication. writing

   image from

[1] Watch the related presentation at

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Munich shooting a negative test for use of Social Media to handle an emergency

The latest ‘terrorist’ attack in Munich was a very negative test for use of social media during an emergency.

While it is inevitable that individual citizens will report just what they see, without getting the entire picture, the German Police contributed to spreading undue panic and actually played in the ends of terrorism, even if there may eventually be no connection with it.

At 18.04 Police issued warnings in English asking people to avoid public areas because of gunfire.

At 18.15 Police issued a statement on their Facebook page reporting that witnesses saw three different individuals with firearms; this is when they started circulating unconfirmed information…

At 18.23 Police said there were unconfirmed reports of more violence and possible gunfire in the city center, asking people to avoid public areas as the situation was unclear.

At 18:35 Police issued a message on Twitter encouraging people to stay away from the shopping center and to remain in their homes.

At 7:13 Police asked that no photographs or videos of the police operations be taken or put online.

At 7:41 Police urged people to avoid public places in Munich as the situation was still very unclear and the whereabouts of the alleged shooter or shooters was unknown.

From this point, there was a crescendo of alarmist police reports, while German media were stating that Munich police had described the situation as “an acute terror threat.”

It took up to 6 hours to admit that the suspect was thought to be an 18-year-old German-Iranian citizen who had lived in Munich for some time. Police had shot at him before he apparently turned his own gun on himself. The motive for the attack remained “unclear,” and the reason for a search for “up to three suspects” was a false lead on two potential suspects, who turned out to have nothing to do with the attack.

Meanwhile, there had be a race among world leaders to share sympathy for Germany, which was implied to be under an Islamic terrorist attack…

The German Police should have learned from the Boston Police how to handle cases like this! Even in that occasion there was predominat false information circulating, but without police endorsement. Only 20% of information in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombing was true  (see my previous post).

A full description of the Munich sequence can be found at the Deutch Welle blog.

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A communication crisis is in progress! The PokemonGo servers are down…

(updated on 3 October 2016)

To the dismay of the millions of Pokemon GO addicts, Nintendo-Niantic confirmed on July 16, that the servers for the game that’s taking the world by storm were indeed down. Gamer community group Pokemon GO News reported a few hours later that Nintendo’s servers were up and running, though service might be sluggish for some users.

A communication crisis was suddenly in progress as users where lost in their battle to understand what was happening!

A hacking group claimed responsibility for taking down the Pokémon Go servers using a DDOS attack. This problem, however, involved not just the players but also the many marketing initiatives built around the game.


You probably know that Pokemon GO is a simple, attractive game that is creating addiction. Worse than Candy Crush! Pokémon GO has been installed hundreds of millions of times since launch in early July and is played in more than 100 countries around the world.

It basically consists in a free App that requires you to walk around looking at the world through your smartphone until you see a Pokemon, and then you try to catch it. You create an avatar that moves around by following your phone’s GPS coordinates, allowing you to see where you are like you would on a Google Map.

The growing popularity immediately had economic consequences. The game became part of social media, as it now includes a very simple chat option. It is also being exploited for marketing purposes. Here is a great example: The Houston Zoo uses Pokemon Go to get visitors in the gates at the zoo by posting on their Facebook page the number of Pokéstops available at the zoo. Several hotels pretend to host Pokemons…

A portable device called the Pokémon GO Plus enables Pokémon GO players to enjoy the game even while they’re not looking at their smartphones. The device connects to a smartphone via Bluetooth and notifies the player about events in the game—such as the appearance of a Pokémon nearby—using LED and vibration.

News media is contributing to this phenomenon by mainly reporting on the associated risks. Many people have had accidents because being distracted by the game, or entered prohibited areas. “Death by Pokemon is coming,” as people use the program while walking, biking, driving, etc.”

Business is business and – as long as the game remains popular, you may think about using it to help your PR campaign…

But you can do it only if you trust the reliability of the game. Gamers are used to outages. But Nintendo-Niantic was clearly unprepared to deal with the outage in a timely manner.

An article in Lore Hound noted: “Now that it’s happened everyone, players, analysts and some casually interested parties, are wondering what’s going on? How is Pokemon Go going to continue its trajectory? Why wouldn’t a business discuss this, you ask? There’s two likely reasons. First, the company may not be well versed in your average crisis management. After all, Niantic Labs spun off of Google as one of its more adventurous endeavors, never a core line of business. Let’s not kid ourselves, this is nothing short of a crisis. Continued server problems, especially while roll outs persist, piss off current players and kill engagement for newcomers. Both horrendous outcomes to the game and its bottom line. Second, Niantic Labs currently lacks the resources to get ahead of the problem, server and communication wise. “

102821844-pokemon-go-dead-body-large_trans4d0vs6-dqkyv8ftfvraejnokxk2chs8hqcgyvpcdbfiThe Thelegraph: Teen playing Pokémon Go stumbles upon dead body

It was only with a blog post, dated 29 September, that Niantic fully explained what happened:

“The Cloud Datastore service that we were utilizing was soon running at more than fifty times our original projections. Player demand ultimately spiked by more than an order of magnitude, ten times our most aggressive estimates, requiring hot fixes and ongoing game changes against a backdrop of massive growth in players.

With Google Cloud product and engineering teams at our side as consultative partners, Niantic was able to overcome the rush of millions of enthusiastic Trainers and stabilize the service. Engineering teams from both companies began working hand-in-hand around the clock the moment it became clear that the game’s popularity would exceed our wildest estimates. More than a dozen teams across Cloud Platform and other core Google products rallied to support us as we pushed live improvements to the game for our players. In parallel, Google’s infrastructure teams worked to tune systems, ensuring sufficient capacity for us to keep up with the game’s skyrocketing popularity.”

Next time they will do better…

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Before ‘dropping the mic’ President Obama made strong plea to press correspondents

The White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) is an organization of journalists who cover the White House and the President of the United States. The WHCA was founded on February 25, 1914, by journalists in response to an unfounded rumor that a Congressional committee would select which journalists could attend press conferences of President Woodrow Wilson.

The WHCA’s annual dinner, begun in 1920, has become a Washington, D.C. tradition and is usually attended by the President and Vice President. The dinner is traditionally held on the evening of the last Saturday in April at the Washington Hilton. Obama’s appearance at the eighth such dinner of his presidency represented the apotheosis of a peculiarly American phenomenon.

Until 1962, the dinner was open only to men, even though WHCA’s membership included women. At the urging of Helen Thomas, President John F. Kennedy refused to attend the dinner unless the ban on women was dropped. Actually, JFK was the first president to deliver extended comic speeches.

Prior to World War II, the annual dinner featured singing between courses, a homemade movie and an hour-long, post-dinner show with big-name performers. Since 1983, however, the featured speaker has usually been a comedian, with the dinner taking on the form of a roast of the President and his administration.

The dinner also serves to honor young and veteran journalists alike with scholarships and awards. The proceeds from the lofty ticket prices for the event go toward funding these accolades. Tickets to the dinner — which are only available for purchase by WHCA members — cost $300 per person or $3,000 per table this year.


During his speech at the 2016 dinner, Barack Obama famously joked, “The end of the Republic has never looked better.”  He hosted his last White House Correspondents’ Dinner on 30 April 2016. Ninety percent of his speech was just jokes about himself, the political climate and the guests. Very few people can afford using a mix like this, better tailored to David Letterman.

However, the real core of the speech was his departing statement, on the role of news media today. Words worth being quoted:

“…At home and abroad, journalists like all of you engage in the dogged pursuit of informing citizens, and holding leaders accountable, and making our government of the people possible. And it’s an enormous responsibility. And I realize it’s an enormous challenge at a time when the economics of the business sometimes incentivize speed over depth; and when controversy and conflict are what most immediately attract readers and viewers.

The good news is there are so many of you that are pushing against those trends. And as a citizen of this great democracy, I am grateful for that. For this is also a time around the world when some of the fundamental ideals of liberal democracies are under attack, and when notions of objectivity, and of a free press, and of facts, and of evidence are trying to be undermined. Or, in some cases, ignored entirely.

And in such a climate, it’s not enough just to give people a megaphone. And that’s why your power and your responsibility to dig and to question and to counter distortions and untruths is more important than ever. Taking a stand on behalf of what is true does not require you shedding your objectivity. In fact, it is the essence of good journalism. It affirms the idea that the only way we can build consensus, the only way that we can move forward as a country, the only way we can help the world mend itself is by agreeing on a baseline of facts when it comes to the challenges that confront us all.

So this night is a testament to all of you who have devoted your lives to that idea, who push to shine a light on the truth every single day.”

Here is a well-conceived short description of the event: “President Obama ended his final Correspondents’ Dinner on his own terms. He told jokes aimed at the current presidential candidates, he skewered the room on race – a subject that he has shied away from throughout his presidency – and he was really funny. Overall, he remained true to himself, a hardnosed politician who never took himself too seriously and always told things like they were. In his final moments, leaving everything on the floor, he simply said, “Obama out.” He dropped the mic and received a well-deserved standing ovation.” (Niema Hulin)



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Digest of News of interest to Public Affairs

The ComIPI’s quarterly digest is on line. It mainly features Donald Trump’s ommunication strategy and the ‘fil rouge’ connecting other topics of recent interest: the information battle space is equally, if not more important, than the physical battle space.


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Digest of NEWS – Features cultural barriers and disinformation

The latest issue of ComIPI’s quarterly digest is on line. It mainly features overcoming cultural barriers and the problem posed by disinformation within digital media.

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International & Public Communication on Wednesday, January 6, 2016

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