"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 to Leo Tolstoy
What follows is an excerpt from 'Trust Me I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator,' a book where I expose exactly how blogs and marketers conspire to manufacture, distort and exaggerate the news for their own benefit. Here's how to recognize media manipulation and how to protect yourself.
When you see a blog being 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 emailed 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.
When you see "breaking" or "We'll have more details as the story develops," know that what you're reading reached you too soon. There was no wait-and-see, no attempt at confirmation, no internal debate over whether the importance of the story necessitated abandoning caution. The protocol is going to press early, publishing before the basics facts are confirmed, and not caring whether it causes problem for people.
When you see "Updated" on a story or article, know that no one actually bothered to rework the story in light of the new facts -- they just copied and pasted some shit at the bottom of the
When you see "Sources tell us... ," know that these sources are not vetted, they are rarely corroborated, and they are desperate for attention.
When you see a story tagged with "exclusive," know that it means the blog and the source worked out an arrangement that included favorable coverage. Know that in many cases the source gave this exclusive to multiple sites at the same time or that the site is just taking ownership of a story they stole from a lesser-known site.
When you see "said in a press release," know that it probably wasn't even actually a release the company paid to officially put out over the wire. They just spammed a bunch of blogs and journalists via email.
When you see "According to a report by," know that the writer summarizing this report from another outlet has but the basest abilities in reading comprehension, little time to spend doing it, and every incentive to simplify and exaggerate.
When you see "We've reached out to So-and-So for comment," know that they sent an email two minutes before hitting "publish" at 4:00 a.m., long after they'd written the story and closed their mind, making absolutely no effort to get to the truth before passing it off to you as the news.
When you see an attributed quote or a "said So-and-So," know that the blogger didn't actually talk to that person but probably just stole the quote from somewhere else, and per the rules of the link economy, they can claim it as their own so long as there is a tiny link to the original buried in the post somewhere.
When you see "which means" or "meaning that" or "will result in" or any other kind of interpretation or analysis, know that the blogger who did it likely has absolutely zero training or expertise in the field they are opining about. Nor did they have the time or motivation to learn. Nor do they mind being wildly, wildly off the mark, because there aren't any consequences.
When you hear a friend say in conversation "I was reading that... ," know that today the sad fact is that they probably just glanced at something on a blog.
Relying on Abandoned Shells
The process for finding, creating, and consuming information has fundamentally changed with the advent of the web and the rise of blogging. However, the standards for what constitutes news are different, the vigor with which such information is vetted is different, the tone with which this news is conveyed is different, and the longevity of its value is different. Yet, almost without exception, the words we use to describe the news and the importance readers place on them remains the same.
In a world of no context and no standard, the connotations of the past retain their power, even if those things are fractions of what they once were. Blogs, to paraphrase Kierkegaard, left everything standing but cunningly emptied them of significance.
Words like 'developing,' 'exclusive,' and 'sources' are incongruent with our long-held assumptions about what they mean or what's behind them. Bloggers use these "substance words" (like Wikipedia's weasel words) to give status to their flimsy stories. They use the language of Woodward and Bernstein but apply it to a media world that would make even Hearst queasy. They us what George W. S. Trow called "abandoned shells."
Why does this matter? We've been taught to believe what we read. That where there is smoke there must be fire, and that if someone takes the time to write down and publish something, they believe in what they are saying. The wisdom behind those beliefs is no longer true, yet the public marches on, armed with rules of thumb that make them targets for manipulation rather than protection.
I have taken advantage of that naïveté. And I'm not even the worst of the bunch. I'm no different than everyone else; I too am constantly tricked -- by bloggers, by publishers, by politicians, and by marketers. I'm even tricked by my own monstrous creations.
The Age of No Authorities
And so fictions pass as realities. Everyone is selling and conning, and we hardly even know it. Our emotions are being triggered by simulations -- unintentional or deliberate misrepresentations -- of cues we've been taught were important. We read some story and it feels important, believing that the news is real and the principles of reporting took place, but it's not.
Picture a movie poster for an independent film that wants to be received as artistic and deep. It probably features the laurel leaves icon -- for awards like "Best Picture," "Critic's Choice," or "Official Selection." These markers originally symbolized a handful of important film festivals. Then it became important for every city, even neighborhoods inside cities, to have their own film festival. There also the significant differences in the "winners" and the few dozen or even hundreds of "selections." The use of the festival laurels is to conjure up the implicit value associated with scarcity for the viewer despite the enormous gap between the connotation and the reality.
The laurel leaf illusion is a metaphor for the web. It underpins everything from the link economy -- a link looks like a citation, yet it is not -- to headlines that bait our clicks. It's why trading up the chain works and it's the reason why you could get your name in the press tomorrow through HARO.
What these people are trying to do is to find some, any, stamp of approval or signal of credibility. Blogs have a few minutes to write their posts, few resources, and little support, but because of the One-Off Problem they need to be heard over thousands of other sites. They desperately need something that says "this is not like those other things" even though it is. So they make up differentiators and misuse old ones.
"In the age of no-authority" wrote Trow, "these are the authorities."
We live in a media world that desperately needs context and authority but can't find any because we destroyed the old markers and haven't created reliable new ones. As a result, we couch new things in old terms that are really just husks of what they once were. Skepticism will never be enough to combat this. Not even enough to be a starting point.
It is now almost cliché for people to say, "if the news is important, it will find me." This belief itself relies on abandoned shells. It depends on the assumption that the important news will break through the noise while the trivial will be lost. It could not be more wrong. As I discovered in my media manipulations, the information that finds us online -- what spreads -- is the worst kind. It raised itself above the din not through its value, importance, or accuracy but through the opposite, through slickness, titillation, and polarity.
I made a lot of money and had a great time playing with the words that make up the news. I exploited the laziness behind the news and people's reading habits. But from the abuse of abandoned shells came another one.
Our knowledge and understanding is the final empty, hollow shell. What we think we know turns out to be based on nothing, or worse than nothing -- misdirection and embellishment. 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.
There is no way that is a good thing, no matter how much I gained from it personally.
Follow Ryan Holiday on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ryanholiday