The Slatest

Let’s All Stop Mindlessly Clicking and Sharing Zombie Links

A can of Spam shown in close-up.
Mike Blake/File Photo/Reuters

The popular sports website Deadspin is being buried alive. In April, Deadspin and the other sites once owned by Gawker Media were purchased by a media firm run by some of the individuals who helped turn Forbes’ website into a repository for clickbait.* The properties were organized in a new company called G/O Media. In August, Deadspin editor-in-chief Megan Greenwell resigned over G/O’s insistence that her site stop covering issues that weren’t directly sports-related; Tuesday, deputy editor Barry Petchesky was fired for similar reasons.

Deadspin’s popularity and brand distinctiveness is in large part due to its history of incorporating lifestyle humor, political commentary, and cultural context into sports coverage—of writing about games and highlights, but also about other subjects of interest to readers who might be drawn to funny, original writing about games and highlights. The new owners have nonetheless said, publicly, that they want to “focus on sports coverage.”

But publishing well-written, well-researched articles that address various subjects with authority takes longer and costs more than publishing a high volume of short posts that exist only as filler underneath narrow-topic headlines designed to game Google searches, manufacture uplifting viral feelings , or trigger outrage. It’s a strategy that’s easy to recognize, because what is happening to Deadspin has already happened elsewhere, and not just in sports media: Trustworthy brand-name publications are being hollowed out and refilled with unpaid “community” contributors or low-paid, less experienced professionals who don’t have the stature to challenge editorial imperatives or productivity quotas that generate useless, often-inaccurate content. This kind of zombification is happening right now to Sports Illustrated and has already happened to Newsweek; it’s even happened to parts of BuzzFeed, which didn’t even exist until this century.

The truly messed-up thing about this is not that a business would try to cut costs and make money in a destructive way: It’s that it can work, because people keep reading the articles. Having a brand that doesn’t mean what it used to, or doesn’t mean anything at all, is no obstacle to generating bulk reader traffic. Look at NewsWhip’s list of the most-engaged-with articles on Facebook in September, and you’ll find such nonlegendary names as OnlineNewz.Today and PoliticsUSA, low-budget sites loaded with browser-murdering junk ads. One of the most consistently successful publishers on Facebook is the right-wing site Daily Wire, which appears to juice its stats by automatically reposting its stories on ostensibly unaffiliated pages with perfunctorily iterative brand names like Pro-America News, Conservative News, the Real Patriots, and Lady Patriots.

Using an established brand for OnlineNewz-style content gives you a built-in audience to try to jump-start your zero-value network with. And the strategy can “work.” Zombie Newsweek has popped up on NewsWhip’s Facebook most-engaged list. So has the Hill, a daily congressional print publication that, though it still employs real beat reporters, has also built a prolific online clickbait operation that repackages other sites’ stories. Forbes Media said 2018 was its most profitable year in a decade.

This is not all readers’ fault. The system of online ads and social sharing is easily manipulated, as nicely demonstrated in the firsthand story linked above about posting a flood of pointless articles about India to meet a year-end ad-sales quota. But some of the engagement with spam-level links is, to use the industry term, authentic, as anyone who’s been sent a Newsweek or Daily Mail article can attest. A recent study in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (!) helps explain why, finding that Facebook users were more likely to trust a given outlet’s story, and to become more interested in seeking stories from that outlet in the future, if an “opinion leader” friend posted it. It makes sense: a chain of virality, in which every successive person trusts a dubious source because the friend before them did so. It’s a depressing situation, but not a hopeless one, because it means all of us can do our part. Break the chain: Don’t share spam!

Correction, Nov. 1, 2019: This sentence originally misstated that G/O executives had been involved in developing Forbes’ contributor network. The contributor network was not launched until after they had left the company.