The ABCs of hijacking the news with spin king Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday made his name as a master manipulator of media, but decided to lift the lid on his tactics and methods two years ago. Here he talks to Robert Burton-Bradley about why he did that, how easy it was to manipulate the media, and how things have become worse since he lifted the lid.
The online news media is a racket designed to benefit a few players and distort the news, a place where journalists use cognitive dissonance to believe the lies they are spun, so says self confessed media manipulator Ryan Holiday who was in Sydney last week for the Vivid Festival to deliver a talk on the tactics and ethics of getting your message out there at almost any cost.
Holiday says he has largely turned his back on the industry where he made his name after he spilt the beans on the inside practices employed by PRs and editors to drive traffic at the expense of the news and ultimately the audience. His 2012 book Trust me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator was a Wall Street Journal bestseller and his monthly email newsletter has more than 10,000 subscribers who absorb his ideas on everything from the media to philosophy.
Holiday spoke to Mumbrella about “outrage porn” “trading up the chain” and just how hijacked the online flow of information has become.
You describe the mainstream media as being like a racket, why do you say that?
It all goes back to incentives. The media profits from clicks and page views – lots of them. So why would a blogger be reticent to publish a story that wasn’t fact checked or didn’t have quality sources if he or she knew people would react to it and click?
A racket is something that operates for the benefit of the few at the expense of the many. To most people, the media is just the media, same as it has ever been. But publishers and writers in the system know they are motivated by driving page views, so they distort the news to create as many click-bait headlines as a possible.
All the while, readers have no idea that this is how the system operates and they are paying the costs for this with their time and attention looking through bogus and inane stories. Its a negative externality of free news.
How does social media fit into this?
Social media amplifies the racket by giving people the means to broadcast their identity through the stories they read online. Publishers know this and therefore look for stories that trigger emotional reactions in people, either positive or negative, so that we will share them on our profiles and make a story go viral.
So I think that ethical dilemma still exists, its just that cognitive dissonance and denial allows journalists to keep doing their job the way they do.
How do people like yourself interact with this environment and is there an ethical or even moral dilemma in the nature of that interaction?
There’s definitely an ethical dilemma when you’re dealing the media the way I was and its a big reason why I wrote Trust Me, I’m Lying. I wanted to get all the things I knew and understood about the media off my chest, not only to free myself from it, but hopefully to call attention to things that I thought could be changed for the better.
I was pretty shocked that in the aftermath, things didn’t really get better, but in fact, got much, much worse. When I was writing the book sites like Upworthy.com didn’t really exist – now they are dominant news sources. So I think that ethical dilemma still exists, it’s just that cognitive dissonance and denial allows journalists to keep doing their job the way they do.
Why is it easier to target smaller blogs and sites when you want a message to appear in the mainstream media?
Smaller blogs have lower standards than the mainstream media, believe it or not, so the barrier of entry to getting your story published is lower as well. But the thing is the mainstream media isn’t spending all their time and money doing investigative journalism, they’re scouting smaller blogs for stories and tips they can use to get eyeballs.
In Trust Me, I’m Lying I call this technique “trading up the chain,” Where you can use the system against itself by starting with local media or small blogs and then tipping off larger blogs to create a media wave.
Does the irresistible nature of viral content erode journalistic rigour and the integrity of information?
Journalist’s behaviour isaffected by the incentives of their job. Since almost all journalists are paid with page view bonuses today, they have to look for stories that are going to make people upset or want to share the story with others. That’s why you see a lot of what I call “outrage porn” in the media today. Stories are selected and headlines are created to provoke a reaction in the reader, not to inform him or her. From blogs, what’s good is what spreads. So that’s why you are seeing things like sourcing and fact checking going out the window.
How hard it can be to correct an untruth once it has gone viral?
It can seem nearly impossible to correct an untruth once the information has gone out into the ether. Blogs will update stories, adding on to their previously inaccurate one, but they’re not doing it to necessarily make it right, but to get more page views from being wrong.
You said you realised your part in this process to an extent and said it was gradual, but also said that when you assisted a client to get a settlement payment with the threat of a lawsuit and a “leaked” legal letter, there was a watershed moment for you. Why was that?
Because it was shocking to me how easy it was to do. I hadn’t created some elaborate plan, I was just giving a friend advice. And in that way, given the incentives, it would have been stupid not to do. I mean, it was so easy I had forgotten about it until my friend reminded me about it.
So after he told me how much money he had settled for, it was scary to realise how easily the legal system could be used in this way. It was one of those moments you realise how dangerous of a game this can be and how you might not want to be a part of it.