Storytelling

Hate Clicks Are the New Clickbait

When Jonélle La Foucade was a contributing writer for The Edit, she committed the internet’s cardinal sin: criticizing Beyoncé. The singer’s sixth studio album, Lemonade, had just dropped, and La Foucade was over the buzz and ready to speak her truth. “I’m not really a huge Beyoncé fan, so I thought it would be fun to write an article: ‘Beyoncé is Overrated AF,'” she said. “Too many people, they just idolize and worship this woman, I think for no reason. People need to realize she is nobody, really.”

Now a journalism graduate student at Georgetown University, La Foucade had to convince her editor, who was afraid of potential backlash, before she got the go-ahead to write the article. “I was hoping it was going to get a lot of clicks,” she said. “I was like, a lot of people are going to have stuff to say, and I don’t think it’ll all be negative. I’m sure some people will probably agree with this opinion.”

They did not.

“It was getting more views and more clicks than any of our articles before. Then the criticism just started rolling in,” La Foucade said. Within a few hours, more than 200 comments came in. After The Edit’s partner company, Unidays, expressed concerns about the piece, La Foucade’s editor pulled the article from the site one day after it was published.

What La Foucade experienced firsthand was the whiplash reaction to the warped cousin of a hot take: hate clicks, defined here as content angled to intentionally rile up an audience so much that they have to spend time with your content.

The evolution of ‘takes’ culture

In 2014, John Hermann lamented the necessity of the hot takes in a tongue-in-cheek piece for The Awl that remains depressingly relevant. Takes, he wrote, “represent the “we should have something on this” news impulse stripped to its barest form, left unspoken and carried out as a matter of course. Endless minimalist Takes, obviously duplicative from the producer’s side but not necessarily from the other, all drawing energy from a single glowing unit of information.”

Hate clicks, then, fall under the umbrella of the take. They spring from the same impulse to comment, but the genre is less tied to current events than it is to flouting the prevailing opinion for the purpose of provocation. You know this kind of clickbait when you see it. It often comes in the form of an opinion or statement so jaw-droppingly wrong you can’t resist reading beyond the headline.

Although this is not a new phenomenon, with articles dissecting the impulse to court hate clicks predating Hermann’s musings, it’s a practice on the rise with today’s frenetic news cycle.

Take, for instance, the article that ran in The Cut in early December that proclaimed Priyanka Chopra “a global scam artist” for wedding Nick Jonas. The story received an influx of hate clicks and negative feedback, both on social media and in published rebukes from the likes of The Washington Post. The author, Mariah Smith, apologized via Twitter and The Cut removed the article, replacing it with a statement that said “the piece missed the mark” and chalked the mistake up to “human error and poor judgement.”

Days later, INTO published an essay that dubbed Ariana Grande’s ‘thank u, next’ music video “surprisingly anti-queer” and cited elements of the clip as examples of “transmisogyny, heterosexual pride and blackface,” which started another firestorm of criticism. The site pulled the piece the next day as editor-in-chief Zach Stafford issued a lengthy apology.

And on February 3, Bloomberg got a taste of the hate-bait action when they tweeted out an article, aggregated by news editor Maria Kolesnikova from a report by The Guardian, about the perils of keeping an art collection on one’s superyacht.

Though Bloomberg and Kolesnikova did not become subjects of ire, a tweet promoting the article received more than 2,700 responses, the most popular of which featured pictures of guillotines and other graphic allusions to violence against the ruling class. (Smith declined to comment for this piece, and neither Stafford nor Kolesnikova responded to requests for comment.)

Some outlets even seem to offer up targets for derision on a serialized basis. Whether these come in the form of the oblivious rich kids who populate Money Diaries, the “desperate” lovers who send in their Sex Diaries, or the First-Amendment-defenders who operate a certain newspaper of record’s op-ed section, stories from particular sources are virtually guaranteed to garner outrage-fueled attention.

But just because publishing vitriol-inducing content can lead to traffic doesn’t mean it’s a smart strategy.

The diminishing return of hate clicks

Una Dabiero’s first job after graduating college was at Babe.net, a publication she said thrived off of provocative exaggeration (note: I previously worked with Dabiero at Babe). “I’ve never written something that was completely false or completely falsified my opinions on things,” she said. “But I have been asked to use language that incites a strong, emotional reaction from people.”

Although most of the articles Dabiero wrote for Babe weren’t purely inflammatory, her first foray into the world of hate clicks was memorably negative. The piece was a takedown of a viral video posted by a Youtuber, in which a young woman gets a tattoo that says “Chipotle” on her inner lip while a friend films. Dabiero said she initially intended to critique the spectacle of the tattoo, but throughout the editorial process, things got more personal.

“The headline turned into something along the lines of ‘Look guys, I found it, the dumbest person on the Internet,'” Dabiero said. “I never said anything worse than ‘Oh, this girl’s kind of stupid because she got a Chipotle tattoo for clicks, isn’t that kind of apocalyptic?’ Which, I guess you could argue, but why is it my business as a writer to be looking at this girl and using a public platform to write about [her]?”

Eventually, the article made its way back to the subject, and a mutual acquaintance reached out to Dabiero to let her know how upset the story and subsequent negative attention made the Youtuber. In response, Dabiero asked her editor to alter or remove the article, who refused to do so.

“I was basically told to grow a thick skin and to understand that this was the job,” Dabiero said. “I feel absolutely horrible about it. And I should feel horrible about it. That was absolutely wrong for me to do.”

Dabiero has since left Babe. She currently works as an editorial associate at Fairygodboss, a career services site where she produces content aimed at “educating and empowering women in the workplace.” She commissions and edits articles from staff writers and freelance contributors, and said that it’s more than just her current brand’s mission that prevents her from assigning stories similar to the one she wrote last year.

“So much of a writer’s career is their clips, it’s what they’ve said, it’s how they’ve said it, she said. “I wouldn’t ask someone to align their entire personal brand with an idea just because I think it will get a lot of clicks.”

She also stressed that for her, the difference between an article written for hate clicks and an article she’d feel comfortable assigning to one of her writers comes down to substance.

“Are you attacking someone for who they are, are you saying something hateful, or are you raising an intelligent, well-researched point?” she said.

La Foucade also hasn’t steered away from stirring the pot since the Beyoncé incident, but she does prefer to do so through another medium—radio. She hosted her own show on her university’s student station, and she said she often used that platform to share her contentious views on pop culture icons.

“When I ended up getting my radio show for a year, I started doing more controversial topics,” La Foucade said. “The Beyoncé one again, other celebrities like Michael Jackson, we talked about Apple.” To La Foucade, radio is a superior forum for sharing unpopular opinions because it’s more conducive to creating an actual dialogue. “We allowed callers to call in, so you could hear their actual views on why they said that and then you could counter it to see, ‘Okay, what’re they gonna say next?’ which was fun,” she recalled.

But although it might be amusing, albeit in a nihilistic way, to use a platform for the express purpose of disturbing the masses, hate clicks aren’t sustainable. The gimmick becomes predictable unless it escalates, and critique morphs into empty vitriol unless it skewers a worthy target. And most of all, it’s a trick that becomes tired. To paraphrase The Incredibles, if everything is outrageous, then nothing is.

“So often now, I see someone shares [a screenshot] and people are like, ‘Oh, don’t even give this your clicks,'” Dabiero said. “I think a brand that’s based on hatred and inherent shock value is not a brand that people will keep coming back to. You won’t really retain an audience that way. Maybe you can, until you say something that they disagree with. Or until they realize it’s all ethically shady.”

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