Review of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Ryan Holiday is a great read for a variety of reasons. First, it presents an account of all the ways in which different blogs, new media and traditional media outlets can be manipulated in order to get press coverage for products and services. Secondly, it is an explanation for why this newly formed digital media landscape is to the general detriment of society combined with a mea culpa for helping to have created such an environment. Ryan’s writing style is such that the combination of braggadocio for being able to serve his client’s needs so well with the recognition that it contributes to an abhorrent style of discourse comes off

The book opens with a variety of case study-style examples of various tactics that a media manipulator, or digital publicist, can use in order to obtain press coverage and social network shares for their client. Ryan’s clients, which include among many other Dov Charney of American Apparel and author of the book I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, Tucker Max, provide most of the specific stories, however many other clients and many other examples are provided through out. It’s these that media manipulators such as myself will find useful to be familiar with.

Holiday’s analysis of the new media environment is both compelling and frightening. While the books was published before it happened, it’s worth noting that what he’s talking about is a major social issue. Social media influence by the Russian government is being cited as a major factor in the most recent presidential election, the term Fake News is being used to dismiss a variety of news outlets and Facebook has implementing digital algorithms in order to prevent the dissemination of deceptive information on through its service offering.

Holiday starts with an analysis of the growth and influence of blogs, which he considered to be a variation of yesterday’s newswires. Blogs need not be solely personal affairs, like this, but include a large number of well-known outlets such as Business Insider, Politico, Huffington Post, Drudge Report, Buzz Feed and the now defunct Gawker. These, and other, outlets may not always have the largest readership – but their consumers are often people that work as producers for television and writers for national newspapers.

Frovocation, or faux provocation, is one of the many specific types of methods that the modern media manipulator uses in order to to exploit public perceptions and sell product. Manufacturing controversy, even if means making up fictions to spread about a client, creates a situation that allow for media content about a person or company to be traded up the chain. Training up the chain is when smaller blogs with lower standards publish groundless gossip or invented critical clamor for a certain group and because of its virality other outlets soon cover it as well. Holiday cites examples such as fake ads disclosed to bloggers so they could decry sexist ads, untrue rumors spread to gossip websites to obtain New York Times coverage and even Dick Cheney’s anonymous-at-the-time leak that, once it was “in the air” he then cited to support the invasion of Iraq. I include the last example as even though it’s not related to marketing, Holiday points it out as an example of the spread of the new digital media norms to the traditional media landscape that leads to widespread public deception and high-jacking of the political process.

The economics of media outlets are described as one of the primary driving features for the degeneration of the truth online. Ad revenue for companies are determine by page clicks, leading many to publish information that hasn’t always been vetted as felicitous and once proven wrong, isn’t retracted but left as is with an addendum on the bottom (re-working the whole piece takes too much time, so new information is merely copy and pasted near the end, meaning the reader is taking in lots of information as truth and then, if they even get to the end, comes to learn that everything above was false). This quest for scoops and exclusives, which builds reputation and traffic, incentivizes deception and poor reporting.

Holiday gives straight descriptions of a number of the ways that he’s taken advantage of this system – helping bloggers by investing in them early on; telling them what they want to hear (even if it’s not true); helping them trick their readers; selling them something that they’ll be able to sell up (and thus gain in influence); formatting enticing headlines for them that may not always reflect the reality of the article and a variety of other tactics. A short but compelling history of news media from the yellow journalism of the late 19th century to the subscriptions services of the early 20th century followed by analysis of the blogosphere and its relation to modern news institutions shows just how far people have come to again accepting misinformation as reality.

These qualities of a news publication all helps drive clicks and make things sell, yes, but at a cost. One example that I related to specifically, as I recall it getting shared by people back in 2009, relates to disaster-porn photos of Detroit. One set of photos shared many times depicted Detroit like New York looked in I Am Legend. Another set on another blog included people within the images, and wasn’t shared nearly as much. Thus, as a result of an ad-revenue incentivizing system people come to be alienated from the very depressing reality of massive job loss and community flight and instead perceive a nearly spiritual narrative as to the impermanence of man’s socio-economic achievements. Bad feelings, unless they’re directed at someone who caused the problem, simply don’t sell. As Holiday himself puts it, “What thrives online is not the writing that reflects anything close to the reality in which you and I live. Nor does it allow for the kind of change that will create the world we wish to live in.” Another quote worth citing in whole is this: “The death of subscription means that instead of attempting to provide value to you, the longtime reader, blogs are constantly chasing Other Readers – the mythical reader out in viral land. Instead of providing quality day in and day out, writers chase big hits like a sexy scandal or a funny video meme. Bloggers aren’t interested in building up consistent, loyal readership via RSS or paid subscriptions, because what they really need are the types of stories that will do hundreds of thousands or millions of pageviews.”

When I reflect on my own experience doing content marketing, I which was on a smaller level than what Holiday was doing, this rings true. In ideation sessions the purpose was rarely to use available or paid-for data to honestly depict the truth but instead try to create something viral. Some of the tactics that we would use included excluding certain survey data that didn’t align with the narrative we were trying to pitch to bloggers; failing to disclose that the small sampling size meant that in no way was the questions we surveyed people on were in no way representative of all of America, even though our write ups would certainly say that; and ignoring counter-factual data that ought to be included in content claiming to be authoritative on a particular issue.

I’m not a frequent reader of Breitbart, but from what articles I have read I’ve noticed a large similarly de-contextualized information. In large part this aversion to nuance is driven by Warnock’s Dilemma – or the dilemma as to why it is that some posts receive many comments from readers (thus driving up Domain Authority) while others do not. For one, context more takes time to produce and second, with that context it’s more difficult to take a simplistic, binary stance on the position. I use the example of Breitbart specifically as their blogging (I dare not call it reporting) does this so well. In an age where attention spans are so short due to the never-ending assault of media on our senses, they know that readers are fickle and, for the most part, prefer entertainment and salacious or rage-inducing subtle mischaracterizations and misleading information to longer format education and enlightenment. Holiday points out that people tend to confer authority to such content due to the “link illusion,” or the delegation of authority to articles with a number of HTML links on them, as it seems to replicate the academic methodology of publication – however this is, as the term suggests, merely an illusion. I too, for example, have done this in my own professional work so can relate.

If I ever find myself teaching media literacy again, I’m going to make sure to include a photocopy of Holiday’s chapter XXIV, How To Read a Blog. I’ve never made list as to what I look for in trying to determine whether or not content is “true” and thankfully I need not as he has made it here. The assessment as to “where things go from here” which follows is not at all optimistic and the proposals for change are not likely to be adopted anytime soon as it would mean a drastic re-structuring of the monetization process for blogs, online newspapers and online marketing content. What is likely to continue to flourish, at least until people are able to assert that their media outlets follower stricter editorial guidelines, is the continuation of media manipulation using the methods that Holiday describes through-out this book. In the case such a book is great for those, like me, who work in such a field and those that want to better understand how much of what they consume digitally is absolute garbage. People ought, as I says in his closing statement and which I have long agreed with, to read more books and less of the messes that get shared as “news”.