How the modern media works

“Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator” by Ryan Holiday

At the age of 25, before he wrote about Stoicism, Ryan Holiday wreck havoc the media and marketing world by telling the insider’s truth of what he personally experienced and witnessed as a professional within the industry. As Holiday remarked, “[m]y job is to lie to the media so they can lie to you. I cheat, bribe, and connive for bestselling authors and billion-dollar brands and abuse my understanding of the internet to do it.”

He was most certainly not the only one doing this, however, in fact later on as the book progresses he mentions some of the best (or worst?) in the industry, the creme de la creme of the media manipulator, who funnel millions of dollars to online publications to get page views, control the scoops and breaking news that fill our Facebook and other social media feeds, and some tricks and unbelievable sins that would make our jaw drop in disbelieve.

But before any of this, he first confessed to his own sins. “I have flown bloggers across the country,” Holiday admitted, “boosted their revenue by buying fake traffic, written their stories for them, fabricated elaborate ruses to capture their attention, and even hired their family members. I’ve probably sent enough gift cards and T-shirts to fashion bloggers to clothe a small country. Why did I do all this? Because it was the best way to get what I wanted for my clients: attention.”

And that’s the key word that is repeated again and again in this book, attention. All of these clickbaits, polarisations, provocative comments, advertisement placements, social media algorithms, and all the sensational and viral contents are all generated to grab our attention in an increasingly saturated world for, well, attention.

Because the truth of the matter is, as the philosopher and journalist Chris Hedges wrote, “[i]n an age of images and entertainment, in an age of instant emotional gratification, we neither seek nor want honesty or reality. Reality is complicated. Reality is boring. We are incapable or unwilling to handle its confusion.”

So instead, according to Holiday, “[t]he most powerful predictor of virality is how much anger an article evoked.” In other words, the fake news and fake headline that “feel true”, information that is distorted into something that will stick to the emotional spectrum of the audience, which ultimately will turn into something that spreads and drive people to click on the news.

Indeed, the reality on the ground is the media don’t actually care about the issues they are provoking much outrage about, and neither do social media. Instead, they only care about what it means for them: how much traffic and time spent on site that these issues generate.

As Holiday puts it, “[t]hings must be negative but not too negative. Hopelessness, despair—these drive us to do nothing. Pity, empathy—those drive us to do something, like get up from our computers to act. But anger, fear, excitement, laughter, and outrage—these drive us to spread. They drive us to do something that makes us feel as if we are doing something, when in reality we are only contributing to what is probably a superficial and utterly meaningless conversation.”

This, in essence, what helps create the artificial modern world where everybody are competing to get their 15 minutes of fame, where “netizens” can quickly take down and belittle some people as quickly as making them a superstar trending topic, which make the rise of the clickbait culture, polarising online debates, and the rise of yotubers, instagram influencers, etc, a little bit more sense.

As Holiday commented, “It used to be that someone had to be a national hero before you got the privilege of the media and the public turning on you. You had to be a president or a millionaire or an artist. Now we tear people down just as we’ve begun to build them up. We do this to our fameballs. Our viral video stars. Our favorite new companies. Even random citizens who pop into the news because they did something interesting, unusual, or stupid. First we celebrate them; then we turn to snark, and then, finally, to merciless decimation. No wonder only morons and narcissists enter the public sphere.”

Moreover, this book also provides tremendous insights into the inner workings of the online publishing industry (or what Holiday refer as blogs) as well as social media, with all their structures, and their means for surviving and thriving. It touches the complicated subject of subtle corruption (which involve no direct bribe money) and how it is being done rampantly, the ugly picture of the economics behind the spread of news online, how to create the perfect clickbait articles, even how reality TV sucks in viewers.

It also exposes the problem of journalistic credibility, such as the scary rate of reporters using wikipedia as a source (and how a simple edit on the wikipedia page can lead to a false or advantageous reporting from the media), and the ever increasing revolving door problem between bloggers and the giants that they supposed to report on with objectivity, as Holiday commented: “what blogger is going to do real reporting on companies like Google, or Twitter when there is the potential for a lucrative job down the road? What writer is going to burn a source if they view their job as a networking play?”

Reading this book has made me able to differentiate between a real investigative reporting and a viral scoop taken from smaller blogs or social media. I can now see the invincible hands working behind a viral story, or when there’s a story fabricated from thin air to generate more clicks, or when a multiple media deliberately use an already misled claims and watch it spread like wildfire, and I can see all the progress of the scoop in the scale between obscurity and viral sensation.

Ironically, many firms now require their employees to read Trust Me I’m Lying, while many blogs and journalism schools also ask their writers and student to study this book. It is similar like how Michael Lewis’ Liar’s Poker – a book that exposed the rotten culture of 1980s Wall Street – somehow attracts people to work at Wall Street. Although at this point it makes perfect sense for these people to understand all of these tricks (for better or worse), but still, this tells a lot about the state of the industry. The mad men of the 1950s Madison Avenue would be very proud.