Believe Me, This is Clickbait: Should Students know the difference between the effects of Mandela and Meme?

You are young yet, my friend,” replied my host, “but the time will arrive when you will learn to judge for yourself of what is going on in the world, without trusting to the gossip of others. Believe nothing you hear, and only one-half that you see. Now about our Maisons de Sante, it is clear that some ignoramus has misled you.
— The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether Short story by Edgar Allan Poe 1845

History repeats itself in a way that the meaning behind the latest educational buzzwords seem to as well. One week its paradigm shift the next it’s collaborative learning. A teacher friend of mine told me that collaboration and the term ‘collaborative learning’ is a misnomer because we’ve been collaboratively learning for millennia. And, I suppose we have - cavemen, while they weren’t exactly pack animals, wouldn’t have tracked and killed larger, tastier and more agile animals alone without the inherent fear of being a raw and bloody garnish themselves. Much like the traps they would have set wouldn’t have improved over time without discussions on how to improve the efficiency of the kill or the depth of the hole to entrap the beast. However, what he really means is the term ‘collaborative’ is misplaced in today’s digital context because of the use of ‘real time collaboration’ as compared to synchronous and asynchronous protocols of, say, Docs Vs Email. Or, on the network drives we’re still using in 2017: editing files one. person. at. a. time.

Much like this little history snippet addressing technological conventions old and new, current affairs (the news - fake or otherwise), has, ever since moveable type became popular in the 18th century, changed over time ( in the Chinese timeline even more so). Not so much of course, in its purpose more so in its delivery. In some way or another posters, articles, flyers both on parchment and now direct to your feed in the palm of your hand, have tried to persuade us in as many ways as possible in some form or another. All the time mislaying fiction as facts much like Dr. Billy Bob’s Snake Tonic of 1912: “Gives you a boost to see the day through!” In 1912 it was probably the cocaine in Vin Mariani that gave you the boost.

Its modern equivalent has a very sharp blade in the hands of creatives who’ve honed their skills at the school of Ogilvy and Mather et al ready to carve the easier, if not the easiest, meat in existence. If you teach primary school children as your profession, one of the merits of good poster work is to persuade you to understand something to almost believe it regardless of your original stance. One thing to remember here is that no matter how much you call yourself a ‘free thinker’ you’re not. None of us are. Take a general understanding of global warming melting the ice caps to the point where individual pieces of ice are floating about with a sole polar bear atop this ever decreasing island. You know this imagery. We all do. Thank you Al Gore. How inconvenient is this if you’re trying to get your students to critically question headlines when the imagery is so much stronger? Is it deliberate trickery to induce a Mandela effect?

Should Students know the difference between the effects of Mandela and Meme?

Schools should teach children how to spot fake news. How very modern. One of my earliest memories of making persuasive imagery at school was one about not smoking and the other was on the effects of acid rain across european forests. Now, there are merits in both of these posters that, while they both are there to do good and teach the evils of the world to eight year old children, the sentiment behind both can persuade people to adopt the opposite of the message in hand. With selective imagery, careful copy and a poignant, catchy tagline the semi-believable becomes fact as if Groundhog Day shifted to April 1st.  You, too, will have made something very similar when you were at school while still innocent and malleable enough to get fully behind the not smoking lark and thinking acid rain was about to decimate that apple tree at the end of your garden. It never did. Clever marketing and that human urge to be attracted to knowingly dangerous activities still led me to take up smoking at fourteen; I still touch wet paint. Mind you, I still ride my bicycle to work because, you know, fossil fuels and my love of apples. And, should you have had the gall or the wherewithal to question such ideals, then you would be quickly put on the right track by your teacher. Today you would be lambasted online as a denier much like you would have if you were a Christian in Rome 2000 years ago.

You see, both posters, while there to represent my understanding of the persuasive genre in the English language as a year four student, have this strange synchronicity that only now as I reflect as an adult can trace the routes back to their origin: advertising campaigns from the tobacco industry to make a few million bucks; the other a governmental campaign from lobbyists aiming to make a few million/billion bucks. And there we were blindly emulating the ‘facts’ in a similar medium to an already believing crowd from a very select source - our school library. The books of which were sourced by people who in turn were there to get us to emulate the ‘facts’ ad infinitum. Sound familiar? It’s a modern set of social networks in microcosm. At our school today we have 50m x 2.5m wall hand painted by street artists in a similar vein to those posters I made when I was eight years old except this time it’s not acid rain it’s drilling for oil in the Antarctic in 2041. However, is this just raising awareness for kids? How much will they take in? Will any of them, come 2035 think “wait a second. There’s 6 years until the Antarctic is about to be handed sole sovereignty to the oligarchy, I should do something about it!” It’s more likely they will be a cog in the machine and the organisers of the 2041 project would have disbanded ten years previous; their pensions paid for by the numerous speeches and school visits dried up in 2025. Our students can question this type of preaching however compliance is so much easier. Sometimes school needs more time for thought.

All this sounds like the 2030 agenda for sustainable development set out by the UN which in turn sounds like Agenda 21. In the classroom it doesn’t take that much effort to guide students to search a little deeper and more precisely. Search techniques are becoming more and more important in the EdTech curriculum and beyond. Please, if you get you and your students collate your news from or the BBC, cross reference the articles with Russia Today, Reuters, AP, Al Jazeera, Deutsche Welle, NY Times, the Washington Post or NHK to see how the stories differ from sources with different advertisers. Each one has a different narrative to protect based on who are are the main sources of income. This is especially important where search is involved for any students Key Stage 2 and above.

The modern equivalents of this process are prevalent in ever sneakier ways. And, while this post may get a little political in places, it has a very distinct reason because quite often the article you’re reading is, unbeknownst to you, sponsored by a very large company who’s name is synonymous with spreading broader memes and, sometimes, have very dark methods of operating (Compare Hollywood and the recent spate of terrorist's videos for example: make believe is the core model - have you seen Wag the Dog?). One of these companies for example is The Clinton Foundation (here at the bottom via Adage). And this brings me to the first modern mode of duping our everyday student (and teacher) reader or viewer: Native Advertising.

Do Our Students Know What Native Advertising Is?

Native Advertising is, for a teenager (that 13-18 bracket) and slightly beyond (18-30 too) where advertised products mean something to them as they hold social status. Take for example one of my first jobs in a school in Sandwell (the Black Country), UK. At this school I was a P.E. teacher in a relatively rough area of the Midlands. On day one the kids eyed me up and down trying to size me up to the point I was told ‘at this school we beat teachers up’. Delightful. Another lad, who had the same ‘close talker’ syndrome as Judge Reinhold’s character in Seinfeld, was several inches from my face and about to tell me (while at the same time I thought it pertinent to explain the virtues of dental hygiene) what he thought of me when he spotted my Nike Air Max 360s, stepped back to admire them and smiled. Then it was the turn of all students in the class to regale how they owned blue ones, the red LE versions and every kind of Nike Air variant for the last eighteen months. I was set. And this is the point: We’re easy prey. All of us. We believe every story that we read and hear of the artist wearing the Air 360 Limited Editions and how he or she made it to the top of the charts and then the associated links are made that  the two are one of the same ideal.

The groundwork for this process of advertising and public thinking begins over a hundred years ago with famous versions such as the one for Guinness by Ogilvy. Copy cats drilled down into what worked and what didn’t and here we are - links to pages that describe experiences with carefully entwined text containing the product’s name that reaches many more eyeballs than TV and radio ever did. And that’s the crux of the matter - the methods have pretty much stayed the same but the medium has changed. The snag is, nowadays the medium is ever present in our lives because it’s constantly in our hands from inside our phones. And, it’s the same for every child who has one too. More importantly, as our example above illustrates, this is the most impressionable market to educate and understand how advertising works in the modern age.

Is there a solution to this? Yes. As any top bracket football team knows: Catch 'em early. And I mean really early, like Nursery age early. Children of this age know boundaries of what affects them directly. They know if they are getting a raw deal - just watch them react if you tried to tell them that a piece of artwork on the wall is named with someone else’s name in the class. Now, you try selling the idea that it should be Arlo’s name on that artwork over Sophia’s or marketing anyone’s name on any piece and you’d have a mutiny on your hands. If you took this further and had an ‘Editorial’ from the the headteacher selling the virtues of a new policy of ‘free naming’ all work on the wall and see what would happen. I bet you’d get some very precise language from children who are usually typecast as finger painters explaining exactly why the product have transparent ownership.

It’s no great mystery. It ain’t like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. (Although BuzzFeed is kinda like the Bermuda Triangle of the internet.)

Clickbait works because it (a) appeals to your lizard brain and (b) tickles your innate desire for curiosity.

Do Our Students Know What Clickbait Is?

In a similar vein, clickbait is as instinctive (persuasive) but a way more impulsive process. The heading, title or thumbnail of a link is such that its sole purpose it to generate clicks or advertising revenue by misleading you to believe that there is something else to be gained. The way to think about this in an educational setting is with the persuasive language of not just posters but product packaging and understanding the age-old trick of product placement. Kids understand this only too well. Remember kids TV? Remember the targeted adverts around holiday season with those catchy tunes. What a way to learn about why this is made in such a way and why it’s on the TV at this time of day. The music, the colours, the taglines even. They’re all crafted to close in on what children of a young age are naturally and psycologically geared towards. A carefully planned couple of lessons would take, what? An hour each? Scale this over a few year groups and you could be onto a winning formula to combat the deliberate enticement of advertisers and, in some respects, steering them away from Buzzfeed’s nonsense and their kin. The whole project could be making games out of those list links and ‘Why Kardashians use coal to brush their teeth.’

What This Adorable Little Girl Says Will Melt Your Heart

The added problem is, of course is that I think our attention span has shortened. I mean, I have no proof of this except a little search here and there and I find that that I am searching for my own answers that suit me. I am merely watching my own habits over time, applying them to my habits now and comparing (amplifying) them to a teenage student. I think that if students do something similar then they might fall into the same trap. However, I look at my own trajectory in this digital age and find that my reading, my viewing and listening habits have all changed dramatically in the last 10 years. No, this isn’t age, creeping up on me, this is where my job and hobbies cross over. I am in front of (probably the main cause) at least two screens from morning till evening. I bet you are in a similar situation if not for work then without knowing it at some point in your daily/weekly routine. Do you have a phone? A smartwatch? A TV? Games console? Etc, etc… The screen list is extensive. We are all bombarded with content from our screens all the time and our students are no different. The list of items that digitally capture my attention in the last ten years are this in a roundabout list of time taken to use them:

  • SMS (in the early days this took a while if you all had beepers)

  • SMS between 2 to 30 mins

  • Email - it took an age to sit down and compose an email.

  • Facebook (the introduction of streams)- it used to take all my time up - 15mins +

  • Instant messaging - 3 seconds to 5 mins if in group chat.

  • Youtube (Russian Dashcams and Lastweek Tonight notwithstanding)

  • Reddit - swipe to clear function renders posts be gleaned from 2 seconds to 5 mins. 

  • Twitter - 140 characters.

  • Instagram - can consume 30 mins if you’re dawdling about. But to post, 2 mins.

  • Snapchat - for the 8 second generation aimed at kids.

And I think we’re there. Eight seconds seems about the average time it really takes to skim a post, the related hashtags and gauge the viewership. Has it had the right number of reposts? Likes? Eyeballs? Did it have the right appeal? Was the camera set at 45° to hide the imperfections? Hell, even as I post this I’ll be sure to look over (and lament) over what I could have written better. Then I’ll put the pomposity aside and write something equally annoying probably about Apple and their mom-friendly ‘Clips’ for iOS because, you know, the older generation needs to be saturated with eight second sound bites of flannel too.

This is all part and parcel of the clickbait posterboy lifestyle and it’s one giant plug hole that honestly, our students need to be directed away from at a very early age. The tech for building and creating imagery is in their hands - it just needs a curriculum to demonstrate how the two worlds are inextricably linked and how one emulates the other. How is this proved? The changes in attitudes to recognition and their status online is a huge factor. The fear of missing out is a somewhat real thing because nobody advertises their life as an out of control downward spiralling mess on the public loudhailer that is social media. If you’re 13-24 years old (and younger of course) then there is no way that you are going to be doing this. If you’re in this age bracket then you want to have some kind of popularity in your circle of friends and, online, beyond into some kind of Instagram/ YouTube navel gazer. This recognition of ‘being there’ (basically saying, you’re not so try to one up me/us) is evident in recent purchasing trends. Younger people are apparently eschewing products over experiences. And there we have it, we’ve gone full circle on the customer being the advert themselves - Katharine Hamnett will be proud.

Students know the game, they know how it’s played therefore it’s high time to put this into a format to learn and teach from. The problem of course is that teachers have no idea how this works and this is the new frontier of tech in school. Tech in school is no longer about the device or the app it’s about the quality of the content and the psychology behind it.

As Poe once wrote “you can only believe half of this [post], unless someone speaks it to you, then you can’t believe it at all.”