Deceptive clickbaits in the relevance-theoretic lens: What makes them similar to punchlines

Maria Jodłowiec


This paper explores the nature of clickbaiting as a form of viral journalism from a relevance-theoretic perspective (Sperber and Wilson 1995; Wilson and Sperber 2012). The focus is on deceptive clickbaits, i.e., manipulative internet headlines whose interpretation, based on the way they are worded, leads to opening an information gap, thus luring the reader into clicking on the link provided with a view to increasing the website traffic. It is highlighted that such headlines exploit linguistic underdeterminacy, and unlike felicitous headlines, which provide an accurate representation of the article content and therefore play the role of relevance optimizers (Dor 2003), deceptive clickbaits induce recipients to generate interpretations which arouse their intense curiosity but are ultimately incompatible with the article’s content. The paper shows how relevance theory can explain the interpretation bias that the reader of deceptive clickbaits falls prey to and advances the idea that there is affinity in this respect between deceptive clickbaits and jokes.

Publication history
Table of contents

Verbal communication, as is widely acknowledged (e.g., Sperber and Wilson 1995, 2002, 2008; Carston 2002; Bach 2007; Wilson and Sperber 2012; Belleri 2014), involves a certain amount of underspecificity. This is directly related to the fact that utterances abound in contextual variables (such as, e.g., indexical expressions or demonstrative pronouns), vague and conceptually incomplete expressions, ellipsis, structural ambiguities, etc., which must be adequately worked out by the comprehender to get the intended contextual meaning. All this means that what is expressed by utterances is either “too variable or too skimpy to comprise what people mean in uttering them” (Bach 2007, 29–30). This idea has been formalized by Carston (2002) as the linguistic underdeterminacy thesis, which amounts to stating that there is always a gap between what the utterance standing meaning is and what it is used to communicate (see also Belleri 2014 and the references therein).

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