[Updated] Upworthy: Take Down That Autism Headline

[Updated 5/22/14, see below] Today Upworthy writer Matt Orr posted an article with the headline: "Autism Has Increased (Like 373% In 14 Years), So Here Are Some Things You Need To Know About Vaccines." 

The editors of Upworthy should reconsider the headline on the Orr article. It's cynical, irresponsible, and dangerous.

Upworthy item from May 20, 2014

Upworthy item from May 20, 2014

Up to now, I've viewed the clickbait headline style at publications like Upworthy, Buzzfeed, and Viralnova as a passing fad. At their best, the headlines are amusing, which is why The Onion is preparing a whole viral-headline parody site. At their worst, I used to think, they are manipulative, but in a harmless way: the only cost if you click on one is a few minutes of lost productivity.

But Upworthy has sunk to a new low with this autism headline. 

To be clear: the YouTube video to which the Upworthy piece links is by a pediatrician, Aaron Carroll, who makes a reasoned attempt to debunk the entirely mythical connection between vaccines and autism.

But you wouldn't know that from the headline. Read it again. That headline is saying: Autism is on the rise, and it has something to do with vaccines. It is transparently designed to draw in readers who are already inclined to believe in a link between vaccines and autism. 

If the headline were attempting to accurately reflect its subject, it would say "Autism Has Increased 373% in 14 Years, and Vaccines Have Absolutely Nothing To Do With It." 

A defender of Upworthy might argue that the item is attempting a bit of Web jujitsu: delivering unsuspecting Jenny McCarthyites to a video disproving the fraudulent vaccine-autism link. But if that's the intent, I think we know enough about the backfire effect at this point to conclude that this tactic will, itself, backfire. People with strongly held beliefs, when presented with contrary information, will only cling to their beliefs more strongly. (I'm not casting aspersions here: the effect is as strong for liberals as it is for conservatives.) Watching this video could make vaccine skeptics even less likely to vaccinate their kids, especially if they feel they've been tricked into watching it. 

Upworthy is generally lefty and justifies its clickbait tactics by saying it's trying to change minds and support the powerless against the powerful. I don't think it can fall back on that excuse this time.  

Update, 5/22/14 4:20 pm PDT

I've just learned that in response to my post, Upworthy has reviewed the autism article and changed the headline. The new headline is: Autism Has Increased (Like 373% In 14 Years). But Here Are Some Facts About Vaccines.

I think that's a major improvement. In the new headline, it's clear that you're about to learn something new about the extensive research debunking the purported autism-vaccine connection. The bait-and-switch element is gone.

The news about the revised headline came directly from Sara Critchfield, Upworthy's editorial director, with whom I just spoke with by phone. She said Upworthy's PR staff surfaced my post (which had gotten a bit of Twitter and Facebook play, and was mentioned today in a David Pogue column on Yahoo) directly to her. She made it clear that Upworthy welcomes outside voices. Upon retrospective review, she says, the original headline on the Matt Orr piece didn't meet the site's standards -- she called it "a miss."

It was classy of Sara take my criticism seriously and to reach out to discuss the situation. So, many thanks to Sara and Upworthy for listening, and kudos for taking action. 

 

Wade Roush

10 Museum Way, Cambridge, MA, 02141, United States

Science and technology journalist based in San Francisco.