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“Clickbait” has become a dominant form of online media, with headlines designed to entice people to click becoming the norm. The propensity to “fall for” this strategy is not evenly distributed across relevant political demographics or popular sources of survey experiment subjects, so the present study presents the results of a pair of experiments: one conducted using Facebook ads that explicitly target people with a high preference for clickbait, the other using a sample recruited from Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. We estimate subjects’ individual-level preference for clickbait, and randomly assign some to read clickbait or traditional headlines. We find that older people, people who read more online news and people who lean Republican have a higher “preference for clickbait,” but find no evidence that assignment to read clickbait headlines drives affective polarization, information retention or trust in media. However, we argue that the Mechanical Turk sample is essentially useless because it contains no one below a certain threshold of digital literacy; the Facebook sample does contain subjects from this relevant population, but our survey instrument posed such a technical challenge to these subjects that only a (non-random) minority of those who began the survey finished it. We conclude with a discussion of strategies for studying problematic online behavior among low digital-literacy populations.
Kevin Munger received his PhD in politics at New York University in 2018, where he was also a member of the Social Media and Political Participation (SMaPP) lab. His dissertation studies the political implications of new forms of communication enabled by the internet and social media. This work involves developing innovative methods for performing online behavioral experiments and creating new ways to use text as data. His research analyzes the way that new media technologies have changed elite political communication and mass political behavior in the US. He is a visiting fellow at the Princeton University Center for the Study of Democratic Politics in 2018-19 before starting as an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Penn State University.
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