Headline based consumption on digital media and how it shapes public opinion

July 30, 2021 at 3:48 PM


“A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth gets a chance to get its pants on” – Sir Winston Churchill

Churchill said this more than half a century ago, but it has never been more true than it is today. Social media driven fake news is a phenomenon that affects the world profoundly – from elections to vaccine phobia and so much more in between. However there is one fact that makes fake news less dangerous – it can be proven false eventually.

This article’s focus is not on blatantly fake news but on a much greyer area: news and facts that are grounded in some truth and cannot be dismissed as fake, but are still misleading or exaggerated primarily through headlines. It has formed the narrative of modern day news and creates the perceptions that drive society’s thoughts & actions. The buildup of accepted half-truths is likely to cause more damage than fake news that’s eventually disregarded.

“Headline Bias”
If it’s misleading, what is the problem? Isn’t the audience likely to dismiss it anyway? Yes, they likely would but to do so they would need to read beyond the headlines; however more than 90% of the time this does not happen.

Clickthrough rates on some of the most widely shared articles of popular news sites rank generally below 10% of the total reach of the headline. In simple terms – a hundred people see the misleading headline on their newsfeeds but only 10 of them click through to read the full article or watch the full video. This 10% number relates mainly to articles shared on Facebook. Twitter & Instagram tend to fare better, yet would rarely go beyond a 20% upper limit.

I have taken the liberty to coin this behavior as “The Headline Bias” of consuming digital media – a bias from the reader’s perspective that has been magnified exponentially by social media.

 In the pre-internet era, the primary sources of information such as TV news, radio, newspapers, etc made it natural and easy for one to see a headline and then move onto the detailed version of events. In the digitally driven world of today articles and information are primarily seen in their headline or thumbnail form and require a click-through for the full story. 

Another startling fact is that 6 out of 10 people share articles solely based on the headline without ever reading the article (cited in the Washington Post). People are more inclined to share an article instead of reading it as long as the headline – resonates with them, pushes their point of view or personal agendas, or simply amuses them regardless of the content of the article.

 In a hilarious stunt back in 2017 the satirical news site the Science Post had published a block of “lorem ipsum” text under the headline “Study: 70% of Facebook users only read the headline of science stories before commenting” Almost 46,000 people have shared or commented on the post and quite a few of them had been genuine responses. Illustrating the point with a rather embarrassing example.


 “Sharebait” has become a standard

 Clickbait is evolving into the much more potent sharebait; which is the smarter route for publishers as it leverages the network effect of social media while also eventually driving more clicks than direct clickbait. As the name suggests this content is focused primarily on shares through sensationalized and often inaccurate headlines.

 Worse still, even the most respected global publishers resort to inaccurate sharebait on a regular basis. While sometimes this is called out and flagged oftentimes in certain subject areas it’s difficult to do so unless you are somewhat of an expert in the subject. Few examples

  •  The financial space in areas such as the stock market & cryptocurrencies
  • Health space in terms of treatments, nutrition, vaccines, etc
  • Science & tech-related topics

This leads to the buildup of wrong perceptions in vital areas of your life such as health, financial security etc. The eventual effect on society is clearly concerning. 

Another worrying aspect is the defamatory angle of this. Reputations can be destroyed in seconds through a misleading headline. A recent tragic Lankan example was when an accidental death due to a treatment of a mental issue; was framed as suicide and plastered across all main websites. There are many examples of corporate sabotage attempts as well. Where an obscure incident or half-truths are exaggerated in order to call out a ban on certain brands & companies.

 From a regulatory perspective – the larger digital platforms have a major responsibility in curbing this but the difficulty of doing so can be appreciated. They have their hands full with combating even the most obvious fake news which has been a struggle, especially in the last 5 years. Government crackdowns on this are ongoing globally as well. however, that is primarily in the area of blatantly fake news – misleading partially true headlines are an afterthought even though they may be even more damaging to society.


 Let’s refer back to the opening quote of this article to illustrate these points even within this article. 

 Is it actually a Winston Churchill quote? It is widely believed to be so but there are many conflicting accounts of different variations of this even before his time; the reasonable conclusion is that it actually may not be an original quote from him. However, the same principles underlying sharebait & headline bias have over time made society believe that it’s him and we cannot prove it wasn’t. In the same manner, there are many quotes incorrectly attributed to Einstein as well.

 Eventually, the history of our lifetimes may be written and understood based on misleading headlines, with little respect to the finer details that form a more accurate picture. It’s in the interest of ourselves, our professions, industries, and society as a whole to actively battle the misinformation that surrounds us – fixing our bias towards headlines will be a fundamental part of this.

About the Author – Shalendra Mendis 

Shalendra is the Director – Digital at GroupM Sri Lanka, where he overlooks one of the largest digital client portfolios in the country. He has over 9 years of experience in developing and deploying some of the most award-winning digital strategies in the industry.

Starting his career in a digital video start-up based in London, he returned to Sri Lanka to work at a market-leading e-commerce firm. He transitioned to agency life when he joined GroupM in 2015.