“Conning the con men is one of life’s most satisfying pleasures,” writes Holiday. “And it’s not even hard.”
“Fake news” is big news, as your Facebook friends duke it out digitally over whose preferred media makes the most egregious errors. If you’re honest, the answer is “most of them.”
The next question is, “How did we get here?”
The answer lies at the intersection of blogging and journalism, a swampy area investigated (and manipulated) by then 25-year-old Ryan Holiday in his 2012 page-turner, “Trust Me, I’m Lying.” He coins the term “fake news” on page 220, to describe the blog Business Insider, but by then, you’ll already be in the midst of mass media epiphany.
Holiday didn’t actually coin the term—I’m just lying. He cribbed it from Nick Denton, founder of the now-defunct Gawker Media: “Fake news, manufactured, hyped, rehashed, retracted—until at the end of the week you know no more than at the beginning. You really might as well wait for a weekly like the Economist to tell you what the net position is at the end of the week.”
The problem with the Economist is twofold: A year’s subscription costs $190, and besides, you want the news right now. Just remember, says Holiday, “you cannot have your news for free; you can only obscure the costs. If… we can learn this lesson, we will save ourselves much trouble and collateral damage.”
Demand a salary that wasn’t dependent on likes, shares or pageviews?
As you might expect from a five-year-old book on new media, some information is outdated. His chapters on metrics and clickbait headlines are almost quaint. There’s also a long stretch calling out Holiday’s many enemies, by name, which is a fun read if not particularly informative.
The rest is a primary document describing how the “crushing economics” of blogging have become a weakness in the body of traditional journalism itself.
Bloggers, with their lax publishing standards, low pay, and untenable publishing schedules are in unhealthy relationships with journalists, PR professionals and marketers that propagate—knowingly and unknowingly—the rumors, lies, scandals and swindles that our brains want us to believe.
“In the pay-per-pageview model, every post is a conflict of interest,” Holiday claims. “Bloggers have a direct incentive to write bigger, to write simpler, to write more controversially, or conversely, more favorably, to write without doing any work, to write more often than warranted. Their paycheck depends on it.”
All of that can be hacked.
Through the Looking Glass
“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
The book begins with Holiday vandalizing a prominent billboard in Los Angeles, which he had purchased for his client, Tucker Max. The goal was to turn the controversial author into a lightening rod for feminist outrage.
Holiday then emailed photos of the defaced billboard, along with carefully constructed commentary, to area bloggers, hoping his faux outrage would turn Max into real celebrity. It worked, and after you finish the chapter, you’ll never look at the Milo Yiannopoulos protests the same way again.
That was just one tactic. Holiday would purchase pageviews by the thousands to make his controversies look more popular. He might then leave comments—both pro and con—just to get an argument going.
Those blogs became stories, those stories were picked up by journalists, and with a little luck, Holiday could get his story on FOX or CNN, free of charge.
No matter how preposterous the story, the audience was primed to believe it. The part of our brain that processes written words tends to consider any source trustworthy, perhaps because writing has always been expensive and time-consuming to publish.
That’s over. This sentence cost me nothing but a split second.
Traffic By Any Means Necessary
The media models of yore were based on guaranteed audiences, closely guarded reputations, and a scarcity of outlets—for instance, three channels competing to give you the nightly news.
Only the Shadow knows, and without a WordPress platform for his conspiracy theories, he would remain the only one who knew.
Today, however, you need clicks, shares, and pageviews, or it’s back to being a barrista. Our blog doesn’t rely on that model—we supplement Chainsaw Communication’s primary business with content we hope our clients will enjoy. Blogs like Huffington Post, Mashable, TMZ, Politico, and all their ilk don’t have the luxury of skipping a week—or even an hour. The pay is pennies per pageview and publication is round the clock.
“Each blog is its own mini-Ponzi scheme,” writes Holiday. “For which traffic growth is more important than solid financials, brand recognition is more important than trust, and scale more important than business sense.”
Bloggers, desperate for money, exposure, and anything newsworthy to fill a page, are looking for a quick fix. A savvy media manipulator can furnish an exclusive story, like that vandalized billboard. A political operative could hand them a leak. A regular marketing intern could simply send along a press release with everything they need to go live—photos, captions, a compelling controversy.
Those blue-chip names are another illusion. Bloggers for Forbes, Wall Street Journal, and CBS aren’t held to the same journalistic standards as those working for the flagship publication. But the branding at the top of the page makes it look prestigious.
For instance, if I quote a blogger as a source—“Forbes says Starbucks is closing 150 stores”—it may not be an article rigorously fact-checked by Forbes magazine’s editorial staff. It could be a struggling blogger to whom I leaked the story, from a fake email account, citing a post I made on Reddit under another name, in order to discredit Starbucks.
Go Viral or Go Home
“Study the top stories at Digg or MSN.com and you’ll notice a pattern,” wrote Tim Ferris. “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.”
Traditional journalists and editors, with their reliable salaries, reputable employers, and rewards for integrity, still sometimes fell for shocking stories with specious sources. Blogging simply made this all-too-human impulse an economic necessity.
Holiday manipulates bloggers by leaking controversial images from his controversial client, American Apparel. He would choose especially depraved photos from fashion shoots—rarely those used in actual ads—and send them out to bloggers in morally outraged emails.
For other clients, he’d photocopy “internal documents” whipped up for just such a scheme, and send those to Gawker or Jezebel, just to see if he could stir up some free advertising.
It worked. The blogs broke the story, journalists picked it up, and pretty soon his clients were all over the LA Times and Washington Post.
Once Holiday realized what was going on, he noticed that other operatives were doing the same thing. For instance, a “mystery woman” anonymously sent Gawker a shirtless photo of Congressman Chris Lee, catfished on Craigslist. He resigned. Kathy Hochul, who won the special election that replaced him, is now Lieutenant Governor of New York.
“Campaigns understand that there are some stories that regular reporters won’t print,” explained Democratic consultant Christian Grantham. “So they’ll give those stories to the blogs.”
Holiday includes a list of words to look for when you suspect a story was leaked with an agenda. “Exclusive” means that an agreement, including beneficial coverage, was reached with the blogger. “Sources say,” “according to an anonymous tip,” and “we’re hearing reports,” means someone is seeding the blogosphere.
Playing the game pays off. The Drudge Report became the world’s most profitable blog after publicizing the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Wonkette editor Ana Marie Cox was propelled to fame—and respected journalism gigs—by salacious stories. Steve Bannon turned Breitbart into “the platform for the alt-right” and is now a Senior Advisor to the President.
“If fake news simply deceived, that would be one thing. The problem with unreality and pseudo-events,” says Holiday, “is that they don’t stay unreal.”
History Repeats Itself, If You Try Hard Enough
“ You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war.” – William Randolph Hearst
There’s a cultural myth that suggests that the news media was once a pure and simple quest for knowledge, disseminated selflessly to the people in the interests of a strong and honest republic.
No. That’s like thinking the 1950s were accurately portrayed by Leave It to Beaver. The Fourth Estate has been run by madmen, riddled with corruption, and enslaved to revenue since its inception. Of course there are exceptions, like the New York Times and Walter Cronkite. But for most of its history, the media has been deeply flawed and rife with manipulation.
That’s why Holiday studied the Hearst’s and Pulitzer’s yellow press, as well as classic propaganda techniques and the PR scams of yesteryear.
“The tactics are the same but I ply my trade with more influence, and less oversight, and faster results than I ever imagined. I got all sorts of great inspiration (and ideas) by reading old books like The Harder They Fall and All the King’s Men, which are about press agents and media fixers for powerful politicians and criminals of many years ago.”
With blogging, what was old became new again.
Engage, Number One
It’s all about you.
You’re number one—and your opinion matters. It probably doesn’t, objectively, but a skilled media manipulator knows your engagement means more comments, clicks, pageviews, shares, and eventually cash.
Want to know the answer to the clickbait headline, posed as a question? Click. Do you want to comment on the piece, since you’ve got something to add? Sign in. Post. And click again. Are you infuriated, or amused? Share. Did you notice a mistake? Let us know, with your email, in this convenient form. Can you rate this blog, article, or product? Thanks!
Engagement takes effort, and the reason you’re making that effort is because you matter. Holiday made the effort because your clicks and shares made him money. Which is basically Facebook’s entire business model. It’s also a big reason why fake news exists.
Real news—a factory fire in Bangladesh or a trade deal in South America—isn’t about you. So you probably won’t read it, and you almost certainly won’t share it. Fake news, on the other hand, is all about you. Much more so than when Holiday wrote this book.
Which is why we’re hoping for a sequel.