Pageview Trolling and Mass Media

Media has always been about informing the public, but also about sales. It’s a bit hard to disseminate information if your organisation doesn’t exist, after all, and thus you have a drive to keep circulation, viewer, and listener numbers high; not just because you want to sell to consumers, but also because you want numbers to wave at advertisers. It becomes a delicate dance of wooing advertising, maintaining integrity, and making sure the given market you want to capture is paying attention to you, talking about you, and hopefully distributing you to boost the numbers of people interested in what you’re producing.

I’ve been watching the state of the media shift online over the last few years, as the way we spread and relate to news changes. Things happen quickly, so quickly that a news cycle can begin and end in the blink of an eye. Information is quickly consumed in a tide of data. It’s a cinch to quietly drop a bomb in the news cycle and have it pass by with minimal comment if you time it just right. And scores of news organisations are competing viciously for the market, for precious readers, for attention.

The result has been a kind of pageview journalism, where news outlets try to outdo each other with trolling in order to stay at the top for a few minutes, hours, or days. This has long been treated as something tabloids do (long before pageviews even existed) but something ‘real’ media were above, because they were respectable publications with serious publishing missions. That’s all changing now, though, and it’s time to confront the fact that it’s no longer just the Daily Mail and scores of publications with a long history of trolling their readers that are doing this.

It’s the Wall Street Journal, which delights in posting provocative articles and feigning innocence when the Internet explodes. It’s the Washington Post and New York Times, dropping sly trolling commentary in the midst of their pages in the hopes that someone will pick it up and run with it. It’s NPR and CNN. Thanks to Internet outrage culture, it’s almost guaranteed that someone will spot said coverage and bring it to prominence, whip up a froth of anger that results in distributing the piece every which way and getting tons of attention for the parent company, which smirks to itself over a glass of port that evening while twirling its moustache.

Some people have responded to the rise of trolling for pageviews by suggesting that cutting and pasting, reposting material on other websites for review and commentary without giving the original site pageviews, is the answer. Or that articles should be screencapped and reposted, audio and visual media repackaged for use away from the parent site. While both of these tactics are of dubious legality, they miss the larger point, in that they’re still giving attention to the coverage in question, indicating to the parent publication that its tactics are working as effectively as it had hoped. It doesn’t even have to do anything in terms of pushing the piece, because members of the public are doing it for them.

Sure, it might not be getting the pageviews, but they’re only one component of the larger picture. Because it’s also getting brand recognition and the awareness that outrage can generate a lot of publicity that raises its profile and its brand awareness. While some advertisers might decide to pull out of a publication that routinely generates controversy, especially under pressure from consumers (about which more in a moment), others might be enticed by the thought that their materials will be seen by huge numbers of people every time the publication trolls. It’s a great deal for them, because they ensure scores of eyeballs on their ads.

It’s clear that some of these troll articles are deeply offensive and should be engaged with. What some consumers seem to be missing is that the parent company is fully aware of the fact that the material is offensive and inappropriate, and is in fact counting on that to make the piece a success. Rather than engaging with the organisation and the piece directly, I argue it’s far more effective to take the battle to the advertisers, asking them if they really want to be associated with that kind of content, and if they’re willing to risk the potential of alienating potential consumers.

Does Toyota really want consumers associating it with racist trolling, for example? What if consumers descended upon the company en masse demanding that it withdraw advertising support from a company following such an article or broadcast? What if the same consumers were talking loudly and in the public eye not about the feature itself, but about the fact that Toyota’s ads were run alongside it, and what that says about Toyota? Suddenly the issue becomes not whether a media outlet is racist and using racist trolling to attract attention, but whether Toyota as a company wants to stand implicitly behind that racism by continuing to run ads with that publication.

That changes the nature of the game dramatically. If the goal is to eliminate this kind of ‘journalism,’ and I would hope that it is both because it’s ethically wrong and it’s bad journalism, it must be attacked at the source. It’s a hydra, and the problem isn’t one of the many heads—another trolling article—but the actual neck of the beast, which is the funding and support for the media outlets that do it. Remove the financial incentive for trolling, and you’ll find that publications are pressured into more measured, thoughtful reporting that doesn’t use trolling as a way to quickly get attention.

It doesn’t address the larger issues of short news cycles and fierce competition for attention, but it would radically change the face of major media outlets. While it may be frustrating in the short term to not directly engage these pieces, shaming advertisers in the long term could be a much more effective tactic.