Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator – by Ryan Holiday

89 percent of journalists reported using blogs for their research for stories. Roughly half reported using Twitter to find and research stories, and more than two thirds use other social networks, such as Facebook or LinkedIn, in the same way.

Create the perception that the meme already exists and all the reporter is doing is popularizing it. They rarely bother to look past the first impressions.

Three or four links are the makings of a trend piece, or even a controversy – that’s all major outlets and national websites need to see to get excited.

When I want to be direct, I would register a handful of fake e-mail adresses on Gmail or Yahoo and send e-mails with a collection of all the links gathered so far and say, “How have you not done a story about this yet? Reporters rarely get substantial tips or alerts from their readers, so to get two or even three legitimate tips about an issue is a strong signal.

Sometimes just a single quote taken out of context can set things off.

As businesses designed to make money, the way in which they do business is the main filter for how they do the news.

Bringing in big (online) names is now a go-to move for sites trying to build traffic.

One of the quickest ways to get coverage for a product online is to give it away for free to bloggers (they’ll rarely disclose their conflict of interest).

If you invest early in a blogger, you can buy your influence very cheaply.

Journalists are rarely in a position to establish the truth of an issue themselves, since they didn’t witness it personally. They are “entirely dependent on self-interested “sources” to supply their facts. Every part of the news-making process is defined by this relationship; everything is colored by this reality.

Blogs love press releases. It does every part of their job for them: The material is already written; the angle laid out; the subject newsworthy; and since it comes from an official newswire, they can blame someone else if the story turns out to be wrong.

Official press releases often appear word for word in first accounts of events, though often not noted as such.

Anyone can now be that power. Anyone can give blogs their talking points. To call it a sellers’ market is an understatement.

It’s a great time to be a media manipulator when your marks actially love receiving PR pitches.

Wikipedia acts as a certifier of basic information for many people, including reporters.

You have to control your page. (Wikipedia)

If I was tasked with building someone’s reputation as an “industry expert”, it would take nothing but a few fake e-mail adresses and speedy responses to the right bloggers to manufacture the impression. It’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.

Journalists say HARO is a research tool, but it isn’t. It is a tool that manufactures self-promotion to look like research.

“The most powerful predictor of virality is how much anger an article evokes.”

A powerful predictor of whether content will spread online is valence, or the degree of positive or negative emotion a person is made to feel. Both extremes are more desirable than anything in the middle. Regardless of the topic, the more an article makes someone feel good or bad, the more likely it is to make the Most E-mailed list.

In studies where subjects are shown negative video footage (war, an airplane crash, an execution, a natural disaster), they become more aroused, can better recall what happened, pay more attention, and engage more cognitive resources to consume the media than nonnegative footage. That’s the kind of stuff that will make you hit “share this”. They push your buttons so you’ll press theirs.

I had substantial data to back up the fact that chatter correlated with a spike in purchases of whatever product was the subject of the conversation.

A slight slap on the wrist or pissing off some prudes was a penalty well worth paying for, for all the attention and money we got.

The web has only one currency, and you can use any word you want for it – valence, extremes, arousal, powerfulness, excitement – but it adds up to false perception.

Some analysis shows a good question brings twice the response of an emphatic exclamation point. (on headlines)

For blogs, practical utility is often a liability. It is a traffic killer. So are other potentially positive attributes. It’s hard to get trolls angry enough to comment while being fair or reasonable.

The best way to get online coverage is to tee a blogger up with a story that will obviously generate comments (or votes, or shares). This impossible maze of pageviews is so lucrative that bloggers can’t help but try to lure readers into it.

The earliest forms of newspapers were a function of political parties. These were media outlets for party leaders to speak to party members, to give them the information they needed and wanted.

Knowing the trademarks of yellow journalism from this era made it possible for me to know how to give blogs what they “want” in this era.

You want to know how to con bloggers today? Look at media hoaxes from before your grandparents were born. The same things will play.

Though it varies from site to site, the biggest sources of traffic are, usually, in this order: Google, Facebook, Twitter.

Today, as RSS buttons disappear from browsers and blogs, just know that this happened on purpose, so that readers could be deceived more easily.

“People respond to and are deceived by the same things they were a hundred years ago.”

The question is not “Was this headline accurate?” but “Was it clicked more than the others?”

They aren’t going to write about you, your clients, or your story unless it can be turned into a headline that will drive traffic.

Basically, write the headline – or hint at options – in your e-mail or press release or whatever you give to the blogger and let them steal it. Make it so obvious and enticing that there is no way they can pass it up. Hell, make them tone it down. They’ll be so happy to have the headline that they won’t bother to check whether it’s true or not.

“A status update that is met with no likes becomes the equivalent of a joke met with silence. It must be rethought and rewritten. And so we don’t show our true selves online, but a mask designed to conform to the opinions of those around us.” – Neil Strauss

“One can be certain that every generally held idea, every received notion, will be idiocy because it has been able to appeal to the majority.” – Nicolas Chamfort

Once your story has gotten coverage, one of the best ways to turn yourself into a favorite and regular subject is to make it clear your story is a reliable traffic draw. If you’re a brand, then post the story to your company Facebook and Twitter accounts and put it on your website. This inflates the stats in your favor and encourages more coverage down the road. There are also services that allow you to “buy traffic”, sending thousands of visitors to a specific page. => illusory confirmations that you are newsworthy. The stat counters on these sites make no distinctions between fake and real views, nor does anyone care enough to dig deep into the sources of traffic. The lure of the indirect bribe is all that matters.

If news doesn’t go viral or get feedback, then the news needs to be changed. If news does go viral, it means the story was a success – whether or not it was accurate, in good taste, or done well.
That is where the opportunity lies: Blogs are so afraid of silence that the flimsiest of evidence can confirm they’re on the right track. You can provide this by leaving fake comments to articles about you or your website from blocked IP adresses – good and bad to make it clear that there is a hot debate. Send fake e-mails to the reporter, positive and negative. This rare kind of feedback cements the impression that you or your company make for high-valence material, and the blog should be covering you.

You are basically asking for favors if you try to get blogs to cover something that isn’t going to drive pageviews and isn’t going to garner clear responses. Blogs are not in the business of doing favors – even if all you’re asking is for them to print the truth. Trust me, I have tried.

“The most fundamental constraint is limited time.” – Gary Becker

The way news is found online more or less determines what is found. The way the news must be presented – in order to meet the technical constraints of the medium and the demands of its readers – determines the news itself. It’s basically cliché at this point, but that doesn’t change the fact that Marshall McLuhan was right: The medium IS the message.

Small, short paragraphs (one to two sentences versus three to five) seem to encourage slightly higher reading rates; as does a bolded introduction or subheadline (occasionally called a deck).

I will come to them with the story. I’ll meet them on THEIR TERMS, but their story will be filled with MY TERMS.

“Problems occur when the journalist has to find an angle on a story that doesn’t have one.”

… advised new bloggers that they could find good material by scanning community bulletin boards on craigslist for “what people are complaining about these days.”

Blogs will publish anything if you manufacture urgency around it.

The media doesn’t mind being played, because they get something out of it – namely, pageviews, ratings, and readers.

The best way to make your critics work for you is to make them irrationally angry.

Blogs are out to game you – to steal your time from you and sell it to advertisers – and they do this every day.

“Narcotizing dysfunction”: when people come to mistake the busyness of the media with real knowledge, and confuse spending time consuming that with doing something.

“The interested and informed citizen can congratulate himself on his lofty state of interest and information and neglect to see that he has abstained from decision and action. In short, he takes his secondary contact with the world of political reality, his reading and listening and thinking, as a vicarious performance … He is concerned. He is informed. And he has all sorts of ideas as to what should be done. But, after he has gotten through his dinner and after he has listened to his favored radio programs and after he has read his second newspaper of the day, it is really time for bed.” – Paul Lazarsfeld & Robert Merton

The more time kids spend online, studies show, the worse their grades are.

According to Nielsen, active social networkers are 26 percent more likely to give their opinion on politics and current events off-line, even though they are exactly the people whose opinions should matter the least.

“Talkativeness is afraid of the silence which reveals its emptiness.” – Kierkegaard

“Truths are more likely to have been discovered by one man than by a nation.” – Descartes

MAY becomes IS becomes HAS, I tell my clients. That is, on the first site the fact that someone “may” be doing something becomes the fact that they “are” doing something by the time it has made the rounds.

“If you take these blogs seriously, they will take you seriously.” – Barack Obama

“There is nothing more shocking than to see assertion and approval dashing ahead of cognition and perception.” – Cicero

“Rumor and gossip are a light weight to lift up, but heavy to carry and hard to put down.” – Hesiod

The bigger the fuckup, the less likely people want to cop to it. It’s called “cognitive dissonance”.

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.

The science shows that we are not only bad at remaining skeptical, we’re bad at correcting our beliefs when they’ve proven wrong.

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”.

The more extreme a headline, the longer participants spend processing it, and the more likely they are to believe it. The more times an unbelievable claim is seen, the more likely they are to believe it.

Studies have shown that the brain experiences reading and listening in profoundly different ways; they activate different hemispheres for the exact same content. We place an inordinate amount of trust in things that have been written down. This comes from centuries of knowing that writing was expensive – that it was safe to assume that someone would rarely waste the resources to commit to paper something untrue. The written word and the use of it conjures up deep associations with authority and credence that are thousands of years old.

“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, The Image

Online publishers NEED to fill space. Companies NEED coverage of their products. Together blogs, marketers, and publicists cannot help but conspire to meet one anothers’ needs and dress up the artificial and unreal as important. Why? Because that’s how they get paid.

“Get out there and make your own noise. Advertise the advertising.” – a CEO of a viral video agency

The attraction to turning advertisements into content was something I often exploited with American Apparel. Blogs so desperately need material that I would send them screenshots of ads and say, “Here is an exlusive leak of our new controversial ad.” The next day: “Exclusive! American Apparel’s Controversial New Ad.” The chatter about these advertisements always perplexed me: Don’t they know that generally companies have to pay to generate this kind of attention?

Do you think PETA is upset when their proposed Super Bowl commercial is rejected every year? No, that’s the entire point. They get the attention – and they don’t have to pay for the ad space.

Marketers and the media – me and the bloggers – we’re on the same team,  and way too often you are played into watching with rapt attention as we deceive you. And you don’t even know that’s going on because the content you get has been dressed up and fed to you as news.

“We grow tired of everything but turning others into ridicule, and congratulating ourselves on their defects.” – William Hazlitt, On the Pleasure of Hating

News is only news if it departs from the routine of daily life.

The media is a mechanism for systematically limiting the information seen by the public.

If fake news simply deceived, that would be one thing. The problem with unreality and pseudo-events is not simply that they are unreal; it is that they don’t stay unreal.

Our facts aren’t fact; they are opinions dressed up like facts. Our opinions aren’t opinions; they are emotions that feel like opinions. Our information isn’t information; it’s just hastily assembled symbols.

To seek a solution implies and confirms that this problem needs to even exist.

When intelligent people read, they ask themselves a simple question: What do I plan to do with this information?
Most readers have abandoned even pretending to consider this. I imagine it’s because they’re afraid of the answer: There isn’t a thing we can do with it. There is no practical purpose in our lives for most of what blogs produce other than distraction.


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