2017-03-05T22:25:02

Trust me, I’m lying when I say that.

Here are my notes from book Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator by Holiday, Ryan

  • The system eats up the kind of material I produce. So as the manufactured storm I created played itself out in the press, real people started believing it, and it became true.
  • By “real” I mean that people believe it and act on it. I am saying that the infrastructure of the Internet can be used against itself to turn a manufactured piece of nonsense into widespread outrage and then action.
  • The economics of the Internet are exploited to change public perception—and sell product.
  • Though I wish I could pinpoint the moment when it all fell apart, when I realized that the whole thing was a giant con, I can’t. All I know is that, eventually, I did.
  • —my monster is the brave new world of new media—one that I often fed and thought I controlled. I lived high and well in that world, and I believed in it until it no longer looked the same to me. Many things went down. I’m not sure where my responsibility for them begins or ends, but I am ready to talk about what happened.
  • I was lost in the same unreality I’d forced on other people. I found that not only did I not know what was real anymore, but that I no longer cared.
  • Winston Churchill wrote of the appeasers of his age that “each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last.”
  • I didn’t intend to, but I’ve helped pioneer a media system designed to trick, cajole, and steal every second of the most precious resource in the world—people’s time.
  • The economics of the Internet created a twisted set of incentives that make traffic more important—and more profitable—than the truth.
  • Gawker, Business Insider, Politico, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, Drudge Report, and the like. This is not because they are the most widely read, but instead because they are mostly read by the media elite, and their proselytizing owners.
  • The media, like any group of animals, gallops in a herd. It takes just one steer to start a stampede.
  • Every person (with the exception of a few at the top layer) in this ecosystem is under immense pressure to produce content under the tightest of deadlines. Yes, you have something to sell. But more than ever they desperately, desperately need to buy.
  • What spread was not even a rumor, which at least would have been logical. It was just an empty bit of nothing.
  • Every decision a publisher makes is ruled by one dictum: traffic by any means.
  • This is a critical difference. Media was once about protecting a name; on the web it is about building one.
  • Blogs are built to be sold. Though they make substantial revenues from advertising, the real money is in selling the entire site to a larger company for a multiple of the traffic and earnings. Usually to a rich sucker.
  • Blogs are built and run with an exit in mind.
  • And desperation, as a media manipulator knows, is the greatest quality you can hope for in a potential victim.
  • Influence is ultimately the goal of most blogs and blog publishers, because that influence can be sold to a larger media company. But, as Arrington and Denton show, influence can also be abused for profit through strategic investments—be it in the companies they write about or where they decide to send monetizeable traffic. And, of course, these are only the conflicts of interest blatant enough to be discovered by the public. Who knows what else goes on behind the curtain?
  • Conning the conmen is one of life’s most satisfying pleasures.
  • Professional blogging is done in the boiler room, and it is brutal.
  • In other words, an employee making $60,000 a year needs to produce 1.8 million pageviews a month, every month, or they’re out.
  • Most of these figures are not public, but a decent account can hope to make about one penny per view, or one dollar for every thousand.
  • I got a Twitter account with more than four hundred thousand followers to say: “FACT: People will do anything for money”—for twenty-five dollars. For a few hundred dollars more I tricked dozens of other accounts into posting humiliating promotional messages that pushed the book to a number two debut on the New York Times bestseller list.
  • If blog publishers are constantly looking for an exit, then their bloggers are too. They both want money from the same big media companies. They don’t care if the scandals they write about are real or made up, or if their sources are biased or self-serving—as long as the blogger gets something out of it.
  • In the pay-per-pageview model, every post is a conflict of interest. It’s why I’ve never bought influence directly. I’ve never had to. Bloggers have a direct incentive to write bigger, to write simpler, to write more controversially or, conversely, more favorably, to write without having to do any work, to write more often than is warranted. Their paycheck depends on it. It’s no wonder they are vicious, irresponsible, inaccurate, and dishonest.
  • Henry Kissinger: The reason the knives are so sharp online is because the pie is so small.
  • Today, the online-driven news cycle is going a million miles a minute in a million directions. The New York Times may still try to verify their sources, but it hardly matters, because no one else does.
  • Scratch that—now my personal knowledge of Gawker’s sourcing standards scares me shitless.
  • We seek out interviews in order to advance certain “facts,” and then we make them doubly real by citing them on Wikipedia.
  • If I was tasked with building someone’s reputation as an “industry expert,” it would take nothing but a few fake e-mail addresses and speedy responses to the right bloggers to manufacture the impression. I’d start with using HARO to get quoted on a blog that didn’t care much about credentials, then use that piece as a marker of authority to justify inclusion in a more reputable publication. It wouldn’t take long to be a “nationally recognized expert who has been featured in _____, _____, and _____.” The only problem is that it wouldn’t be real.
  • What HARO encourages—and the site is filled with thousands of posts asking for it—is for journalists to look for sources who simply confirm what they were already intending to say. Instead of researching a topic and communicating their findings to the public, journalists simply grab obligatory—but artificial—quotes from “experts” to validate their pageview journalism. To the readers it appears as legitimate news. To the journalist, they were just reverse engineering their story from a search engine–friendly premise.
  • Study the top stories of Diff or MSN.com and you'll notice a pattern: the top stories all polarize people. If you make it threaten people's 3 Bs - behavior, belief, or belongings - you get a huge virus-like dispersion. --Tim Ferriss
  • Something that isn’t shared isn’t worth anything.
  • I will say it again: The most powerful predictor of what spreads online is anger.
  • The researchers found that while sadness is an extreme emotion, it is a wholly unviral one.
  • photos were awe-some; they made us angry, or they surprised us. Such emotions trigger a desire to act—they are arousing—and that is exactly the reaction a publisher hopes to exploit
  • No marketer is ever going to push something with the stink of reasonableness, complexity, or mixed emotions.
  • Yet information is rarely clearly good or bad. It tends to have elements of both, or none of either. It just is.
  • Behind the scenes I work to crank up the valence of articles, relying on scandal, conflict, triviality, titillation, and dogmatism. Whatever will ensure transmission.
  • The media is in the evil position of needing to go negative and play tricks with your psyche in order to drive you to share their material online.
  • They push your buttons so you’ll press theirs. Things 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, or laughter—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. Online games and apps operate on the same principles and exploit the same impulses: be consuming without frustrating, manipulative without revealing the strings.
  • If I could generate a reaction, I could propel the ad from being something I had to pay for people to see (by buying ad inventory) to something people would gladly post on the front page of their highly trafficked websites.
  • CNBC fell ass first into the perfect storm of what spreads on the web—humiliation, conspiracy theories, anger, frustration, humor, passion, and possibly the interplay of several or all of these things together.
  • As Chris Hedges, the philosopher and journalist, wrote, “In 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.”
  • 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.
  • You set up a mystery—and explain it after the link. Some analysis shows a good question brings twice the response of an emphatic exclamation point.
  • Being final, or authoritative, or helpful, or any of these obviously positive attributes is avoided, because they don’t bait user engagement. And engaged users are where the money is.
  • The Matrix had it wrong. You’re not the battery power in a global, human-enslaving AI, you are slightly more valuable. You are part of the switching circuitry.
  • So goes the art of the online publisher: To string the customer along as long as possible, to deliberately not be helpful, is to turn simple readers into pageview-generating machines. Publishers know they have to make each new headline even more irresistible than the last, the next article even more inflammatory or less practical to keep getting clicks. It’s a vicious cycle in which, by screwing the reader and getting screwed by me, they must screw the reader harder next time to top what they did before.
  • Ochs, like most great businessmen, understood that doing things differently was the way to great wealth.
  • A friend put it more bluntly: “Each generation of media has a different cock in its mouth.”
  • With limited resources and the constraints of a tight medium, there are only a handful of options: sensationalism, extremism, sex, scandal, hatred. The media manipulator knows that bloggers know that these things sell—so that’s what we sell them.
  • Our news is what rises, and what rises is what spreads, and what spreads is what makes us angry or makes us laugh. Our media diet is quickly transformed into junk food, fake stories engineered by people like me to be consumed and passed around.
  • It’s antithetical to the interests of the people who would need to push readers toward using it. It comes as no surprise that despite glowing reports from satisfied readers and major investments from Google and others that it would not be able to make it. So today, as RSS buttons disappear from browsers and blogs, just know that this happened on purpose, so that readers could be deceived more easily.
  • In other words, Google’s sense of humor matters the most.
  • Yahoo!’s homepage, for example, tests more than forty-five thousand unique combinations of story headlines and photos every five minutes.
  • You figured out the best way to do this when you were twelve years old and wanted something from your parents: Come up with the idea and let them think they were the ones who came up with it.
  • Gawker displays its stats on a big screen in the middle of their newsroom. The public can look at it too at Gawker.com/stats. Millions of visitors and millions of dollars are to be had from content and traffic analysis. It just happens that these statistics become the handles by which manipulators can pick up and hijack the news.
  • “One can be certain,” he said, “that every generally held idea, every received notion, will be idiocy because it has been able to appeal to the majority.”
  • What gets measured gets managed, or so the saying goes.
  • Like Peter Wiggin, publishers don’t care what they say as long as it isn’t bland or ignored.
  • THE WORLD IS BORING, BUT THE NEWS IS EXCITING. IT’S a paradox of modern life. Journalists and bloggers are not magicians, but if you consider the material they’ve got to work with and the final product they crank out day in and day out, you must give them some credit. Shit becomes sugar.
  • Pride goeth before the fall.
  • To paraphrase Charles Horton Cooley, the products of our imagination become the solid facts of society. It’s a process that happens not horizontally but vertically, moving each time to a more reputable site and seeming more real at each level.
  • What makes it all the more scary in this case is that there wasn’t someone like me behind the scenes, exerting influence over the information the public saw. The system was manipulating itself—and I was called in to mitigate that manipulation—with more manipulation.
  • They had been so trained to find “big stories” that they hardly knew the difference between real and made up.
  • “Feeding the media is like training a dog. You can’t throw an entire steak at a dog to train it to sit. You have to give it little bits of steak over and over again until it learns.”
  • I did that because the best way to make your critics work for you is to make them irrationally angry. Blinded with rage or indignation, they spread your message to every ear and media outlet they can find.
  • Would you also be surprised to hear that the content of the video was designed around popular search terms? And that the title went through multiple iterations to see which got the most clicks? And what if the video you watch after this one (and the one after that and after that) had been recommended and optimized by YouTube with the deliberate intention of making online video take up as much time in your life as television does?
  • The idea that the web is empowering is just a bunch of rattling, chattering talk. Everything you consume online has been “optimized” to make you dependent on it. Content is engineered to be clicked, glanced at, or found—like a trap designed to bait, distract, and capture you. Blogs are out to game you—to steal your time from you and sell it to advertisers—and they do this every day.
  • Entire companies are now built on this model, exploiting the intersection between entertainment, impulse, and the profit margins of low-quality content. What they produce is not so much information but genetically modified information—pumped with steroids and hormones.
  • Psychologists call this the “narcotizing dysfunction,” when people come to mistake the busyness of the media with real knowledge, and confuse spending time consuming that with doing something.
  • Truths are more likely to have been discovered by one man than by a nation. --Descartes
  • “Talkativeness is afraid of the silence which reveals its emptiness,” Kierkegaard
  • If it was once about spreading the word, now it’s as much about stopping the spread of inaccurate and damaging words.
  • Blindsided by the bad publicity, the rival hires a firm to protect itself—and then to strike back. Thus begins an endless loop of online manipulation that can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. And that’s the easiest of the PR battles a company may have to face.
  • Being right is more important to the person being written about than the person writing.
  • Everyone limits their exposure to risk by being fake.
  • With the hype comes the threat of hate.
  • To not be petrified of a shakedown, a malicious lie, or an unscrupulous rival planting stories is to be unimportant. You only have nothing to fear if you’re a nobody. And even then, well, who knows?
  • “Getting it right is expensive, getting it first is cheap.” And by extension, since it doesn’t cost him anything to be wrong, he presumably doesn’t bother trying to avoid it. It’s not just less costly; it makes more money, because every time a blog has to correct itself, it gets another post out of it—more pageviews.*
  • The pressure to “get something up” is inherently at odds with the desire to “get things right.”
  • In this model, the audience is viewed as nothing more than a dumb mob to be manipulated and used to create pageviews.
  • Hesiod once wrote that rumor and gossip are a “light weight to lift up, but heavy to carry and hard to put down.”
  • Corrections online are a joke.
  • She laughed: “I love your idea that there can be nuance on the Internet.”
  • The reality is that while the Internet allows content to be written iteratively, the audience does not read or consume it iteratively. Each member usually sees what he or she sees a single time—a snapshot of the process—and makes his or her conclusions from that.
  • “News remains news only until it has reached the persons for whom it has ‘news interest.’ Once published and its significance recognized, what was news becomes history.” Journalism can never truly be iterative, because as soon as it is read it becomes fact—in this case, poor and often inaccurate fact.
  • The human mind “first believes, then evaluates,” as one psychologist put it. To that I’d add, “as long as it doesn’t get distracted first.”
  • In other words, corrections not only don’t fix the error—they backfire and make misperception worse.
  • Once the mind has accepted a plausible explanation for something, it becomes a framework for all the information that is perceived after it. We’re drawn, subconsciously, to fit and contort all the subsequent knowledge we receive into our framework, whether it fits or not. Psychologists call this cognitive rigidity.
  • It turns out that the more unbelievable headlines and articles readers are exposed to, the more it warps their compass—making the real seem fake and the fake seem real. The more extreme a headline, the longer participants spend processing it, and the more likely they are to believe it.
  • Our illusions are the house in which we live; they are our news, our heroes, our adventure, our forms of art, our very experience. --Daniel Boorstin
  • Why are we cheering on our own deception?
  • Are we seriously discussing how Toyota—a multibillion-dollar corporation, that like all others sells us things we can’t afford and don’t need—should have done a better job marketing to us?
  • Humor is an incredibly effective vehicle for getting pageviews and spreading narratives.
  • You know you’re dealing with snark when you attempt to respond to a comment and realize that there is nothing you can say.
  • Snark is profitable and easy for blogs. It’s the perfect device for people with nothing to say but who have to talk (blog) for a living. Snark is the grease of the wheels of the web. Discussing issues fairly would take time and cognitive bandwidth that blogs just don’t have. It’s the style of choice because it’s click-friendly, cheap, and fast.
  • Intended not so much to wound as to prick. Not to humiliate but to befuddle. Not to make people laugh but to make them smirk or chuckle. To annihilate without effort.
  • If I had been advising Adams, I would have told him that you lived by the sword of online attention, and now you may have to die by it. In other words, I would tell him to bend over and take it. And then I’d apologize. I’d tell him the whole system is broken and evil, and I’m sorry it’s attacking him. But there’s nothing that can be done.
  • “Snark functions as a device to punish human spontaneity, eccentricity, nonconformity, and simple error. Everyone is being snarked into line,”
  • Scott Adams said later in an interview: “Ideas are society’s fuel. I drill a lot of wells; most of them are dry. Sometimes they produce. Sometimes the well catches on fire.”
  • Oscar Wilde said it better: “In the old days men had the rack. Now they have the Press.”
  • It is clear to me that the online media cycle is not a process for developing.
  • These acts of ritualized destruction are known by anthropologists as “degradation ceremonies.” Their purpose is to allow the public to single out and denounce one of its members. To lower their status or expel them from the group. To collectively take out our anger at them by stripping them of their dignity. It is a we-versus-you scenario with deep biological roots. By the end of it the disgraced person’s status is cemented as “not one of us.” Everything about them is torn down and rewritten.
  • Assange hadn’t changed. Someone had just reframed him.
  • You used to have 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.
  • As deadlines get tighter and news staffs get smaller, fake events are exactly what bloggers need. More important, because they are clean, clear, and not constrained by the limits of what happens naturally, pseudo-events are typically much more interesting to publishers than real events.
  • Create a pseudo-event, trade it up the chain, elicit real responses and action, and you have altered reality itself.
  • The problem with unreality and pseudo-events is not simply that they are unreal; it is that they don’t stay unreal. While they may themselves exist in some netherworld between real and fake, the domain in which they are consumed and acted on is undoubtedly real.
  • Was there ever unmanipulated reality ever in the news? Would be not selling much......
  • Truth is like a lizard; it leaves its tail in your fingers and runs away knowing full well that it will grow a new one in a twinkling. --Ivan Turgenev
  • Welcome to unreality, my friends. It’s fucking scary.
  • Our facts aren’t fact, they are opinions dressed up like facts. Our opinions aren’t opinions; they are emotions that feel like opinions.
  • Blogs have no choice but to turn the world against itself for a few more pageviews, turning you against the world, so you’ll read them. They produce a web of mis-, dis-, and un-information so complete that few people—even the system’s purveyors—are able to tell fact from fiction, rumor from reality.
  • The medium believes it is giving the people what they want when it simplifies, sensationalizes, and panders.
  • I now know what the cumulative effect of this manipulation is: Its effect is unreality. Surrounded by illusions, we lash out at our fellow man for his very humanness, congratulate ourselves as a cover for apathy, and confuse advertising with art. Reality. Our lives. Knowing what is important. Information. These have been the causalities.
  • My job was to prove that something was massively, massively wrong and to come clean about my role in it. To prove that we’ve all been feeding the monster. What exactly to do about it will be the work of those who come after me.
  • Trust me, I’m lying when I say that.

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