BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

A look under the rocks ...

This is a scary book. Even more so than a “horror” title, as it's delving into corners of reality where the public narrative gets warped, and how easily said narrative is manipulated. Ryan Holiday's Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator came to my reading pile through a somewhat convoluted path … it had initially been brought to my attention at a Social Media Club of Chicago event where Gini Dietrich, principal of the Arment Dietrich agency (and author, previously reviewed here and here), used it as a key point of a presentation … highly recommending it, in fact. This became odd when I got into the book, as she had apparently written a blog post slamming it, and earned herself a footnote in this paperback edition for her claiming the book was “hurting an entire industry”. Of course, she was addressing a room full of marketers, and maybe she felt this was important information for us to get.

Frankly, this book brings to mind the famed (and variously re-formulated and mis-attributed) quote about “laws and sausage” … in that the less you know of their making the more you like/trust them. The author here was a hot-shot edgy marketer who figured out ways to totally “play” the media, and especially the “blogosphere”. Holiday worked the trenches … buying billboards, only to later deface them, with the interest of creating a story of how much people hated his client and/or product – in order to create buzz and seed subsequent coverage. More centrally, he discovered that he could feed stories into “low level” blogs that were frequently picked up by “higher level” blogs, which were eventually picked up by substantial news vehicles … none of which would ever vet the information being fed them! And, bizarrely, it wasn't just “manipulators” like himself that were creating false stories, even major outlets like Politico would create stories from nothing, assigning resources to cover non-existent campaigns only so they could generate endless fabrications, all simply to generate clicks and ad revenue.
The economics of the Internet created a twisted set of incentives that make traffic more important – and more profitable – than the truth. With the mass media – and today, mass culture – relying on the web for the next big thing, it is a set of incentives with massive implications. … Blogs need traffic, being first drives traffic, and so entire stories are created out of whole cloth to make that happen.
Call me naïve, but I always wondered why so many things I'd click on in Facebook ended up in total-waste-of-time sites/stories which not only didn't provide the info that I was looking for when I clicked, but spread the info that was there over page after page after page … it was those clicks and page views that were the point … the story was only a lure to get my mouse involved. Doh!

As scary as the revelations of how little quality control there is out there are, what's really scary here is that this book is a virtual manual for “how to manipulate the system”. Holiday walks the reader through project after project where his efforts (and sometimes a small amount of cash) managed to create stories about stuff that was purely the fruit of his imagination … but were getting exposure in the highest tiers of the media pyramid. This starts at the level of small “hyperlocal” web sites (this is where he targeted the aforementioned billboard vandalism) … he notes:
What's important is that the site is small and understaffed. This makes it possible to sell them a story that is only loosely connected to their core message but really sets you up to transition to the next level.
The next level is what he calls “the legacy media”, the web components of major media, the newspapers, the TV stations, the major magazines.
Legacy media outlets are critical turning points in building up momentum. The reality is that the bloggers at or the Chicago Tribune do not operate on the same editorial guidelines as their print counterparts. However, their final output can be made to look like they carry the same weight.
He gives an example of getting a useable quote out of a site like which you could then re-purpose for what looks like a major endorsement on your product packaging, appearing as if you'd scored a cover story in the magazine. But these vehicles, too, are simply stepping stones:
The sites that have already taken your bait are now on your side. They desperately want their articles to get as much traffic as possible, and being linked to or mentioned on national sites is how they do that. These sites will take care of submitting your articles to news aggregator sites like Digg, because making the front page will drive tens of thousands of visitors to their article. Mass media reporters monitor aggregators for story ideas, and often cover what is trending there … In today's world even these guys have to think like bloggers – they need to get as many pageviews as possible. … You just want to make sure that such reporters notice the story's gaining traction. Take the outlet where you'd ultimately like to receive coverage and observe it for patterns. You'll notice that they tend to get their story ideas from the same second-level sites, and by tailoring the story to those smaller sites (or site), it sets you up to be noticed by the larger one.
Even more surprising, he notes that sometimes you just have to target smaller groups, if they're being read by the “right people”:
Katie Couric claims she gets many story ideas from her Twitter followers, which means that getting a few tweets out of the seven hundred or so people she follows is all it takes to get a shot at the nightly network news.
The bulk of the first half of the book is Holiday going through 9 specific “tactics” in substantial detail. Here's how he sums up the “help pay their bills” (tactic #1) chapter:
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. … They call it a “digital sweatshop” for good reason.
In the “give them what spreads” chapter (tactic #3), he has seemingly contradictory advice, on one hand:
... “if something is a total bummer, people don't share it”. And since people wouldn't share it, blogs won't publish it.
Yet, on the other hand:
According to {a Wharton School} study, “the most powerful predictor of virality is how much anger an article evokes” … The most powerful predictor of what spreads online is anger.
He notes that positive stories are also good, but the strength of feeling that they spur is the key indicator (although these need to be things that people want to share, sadness, for instance, doesn't get much traction). Of course, this means that “rational” materials don't stand much of a chance of going viral.
Navigating this quandary forces marketers and publishers to conspire to distort this information into something that will register on the emotional spectrum of the audience. To turn it into something that spreads and to drive clicks. … The press 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 on-line … the kind of stuff that will make you hit “share this”. They push your buttons so you'll press theirs.
He goes into some detail about why it's sometimes frustratingly difficult to get to the point of being able to comment on some blogs … “The site doesn't care about your opinion; it cares that, by eliciting it, they score free pageviews.”
A click is a click and a pageview is a pageview. A blogger doesn't care how they get it. Their bosses don't care. They just want it.
Trust Me, I'm Lying is split into two “books”, the first being “Feeding The Monster – How Blogs Work”, and the second “The Monster Attacks – What Blogs Mean”. All of the above is from the first part, where Holiday goes into the nitty gritty of the blogosphere, but the second evolves from his “repentance” (to a certain extent), when he began to see how dangerous and out-of-control the system has become. The final twelve chapters are a point-by-point listing of bad situations brought on by the sort of manipulations detailed in the first twelve chapters, with subjects such as the “Illusion of Sourcing”, “Facing the Online Shakedown”, “The Myth of Corrections”, and “The Dark Side of Snark”. The details in there are more grim (though less quote-worthy), with a lot of “mea culpa” tinged commentary … here are a couple of bits from the “Cheering On Our Own Deception” chapter:
Nobody online wants to point out how fake and insidious {this} is because it's too lucrative.

I never got over the shock of discovering that it was basically impossible to burn a blog. No matter how many times I've been caught leaking bad info, spinning, spamming, manufacturing news – it never changed anything. The same bloggers continued to cover my stories and bit when I created news. They don't mind being deceived, not at all.
The book ends strong, with a chapter on “How To Read A Blog” which starts with a long lists of “translations” such as:
When you see a blog begin with “According to a tipster ...” know that the tipster was someone like me tricking the blogger into writing what I wanted.
When you see “We're hearing reports” know that reports could mean anything from random mentions on Twitter to message board posts, or worse.
When you see “leaked” or “official documents” know that the leak really meant someone just e-mailed a blogger, and that the documents are almost certainly not official and are usually fake or fabricated for the purpose of making desired information public.
This is then followed by a “Conclusion” where Holiday takes a look at what can be (or is being) done to counter the chaos of what passes for news, and delves both into philosophy and naming names of both the good and bad actors in the game. An addition to the current edition of the book are two appendixes, one with a few case studies that analyze in detail specific campaigns, and another that's a collection of several articles that he wrote for The New York Observer likewise picking apart various elements of the business.

Trust Me, I'm Lying is not a pleasant read … in many ways it's the equivalent of moving a rotting log to suddenly be face-to-face with an entire environment of vermin that have been contentedly operating just out of sight. However, it is, by the same token, a revealing look at the news infrastructure that has devolved to the point of being cynically driven by rumor, lies, and slander. I actually paid “full price” (the on-line big boys have it at about 35% off of cover) for this as an add-on to another order, but you could maybe get it for half that if going through the new/used vendors. While a difficult read (due to content, not the writing), this is likely more “for anybody” than most business books, since everybody is subject to the “poisoning the well” across the information infrastructure of the internet, and so might find it interesting to see how the lies we're being constantly fed are generated.

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Tags: book review
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