Plagiarism in the Age of Clickbait

A few years back, I was a minority owner and digital marketing lead for a small firm here in Chicago. A business partner of mine hired a web developer to come in and help us out. After adding me on LinkedIn, I noticed he had a blog, so I checked out some of the posts. The most recent articles, I swear, I had read somewhere else, just recently. So, I did a quick search– turned out, all of the posts on his blog were blatantly, word-for-word, ripped off from other small sites. As I soon found out, so were the few projects he had done for us to that point.

That marked the end of his tenure with us– though, I hear, he’s still out there “developing” sites, and, unsurprisingly, still copying posts to his blog.

This past weekend, Buzzfeed writer Benny Johnson was called out on Twitter for numerous examples of copying sentences from Wikipedia, for the most part, but also several other sources. The timing of this was just perfect, asJohnson had been, in the day leading to this exposé, publicly decrying others on the same social network for, well, basically doing the same damn thing (these tweets have since been deleted, of course).

Buzzfeed has since apologized, and has annotated some 40+ posts of Johnson’s that, as they put it, had “attribution issues”. Which is appropriate, of course, but is it enough?

Image Courtesy of

Content farms, like Buzzfeed and countless others, do not necessarily rely on “experienced” journalists to create hundreds of pages worth of articles per day, since in this day and age, “experienced” journalists are few & far between, and for maximum profit, these sites need their overhead to be as low as possible. The business model works (Buzzfeed was valued at $200 million back in 2013)– as long as you don’t look too deeply into the content, of course.

Personally, though, I can’t put all of the blame on Benny Johnson– in reality, the crime of plagiarism in clickbait articles is not new, not rare, and absolutely, not surprising. When websites like Buzzfeed are considered “legitimate” news sources (because who reads the newspaper anymore??), with their content being shared to Facebook and Twitter like a germ, they attract the attention of investors and traditional-media companies looking for a way to stay relevant. That, in turn, shines an ever brighter light on their content (both good, and in this case, not so much), attracting advertiser dollars and additional funding, which continues in a self-perpetuating cycle of more clicks and more advertisers and more of a need for new content.

As long as there is a rabid desire for people to see which Mean Girl they are or what city they should have really been conceived in, then sites like Buzzfeed will continue to push out that kind of clickbait, while simultaneously, creating “legit” content to keep visitors engaged for a longer period of time and further their inbound links. “Legit” content requires writers, not necessarily journalists– therefore, the likelihood that Wikipedia “facts” continue to be published, word-for-word, won’t decline any time soon.

To be fair, there are some quite talented authors that work at Buzzfeed, and I certainly wouldn’t characterize all of their content as clickbait; realistically, though, this is how they’ve made their name, and their valuation, so it should come as no shock to them to be categorically labeled as such.

But, also, in the spirit of fairness, the media-consumed public is mostly to blame for incidents like this. Our thirst for content is so great, that if we don’t find it in one place, we’ll just jump to another. In order for sites to keep you within their walled garden, a constantly-updating stream of “new” is required. With seasoned journalists an endangered species, and sites forced to keep overhead low by investors, novice writers are cast in a very bright, very hot spotlight to produce relevant content.

For content-driven sites, it’s a simple matter of publish, or perish– unfortunately, in this environment, that pressure can come with a significant risk to quality. It’s not surprising, or a new phenomena; and, like most things that are wrong in this world, it’s all our fault.