Monday, August 3, 2015

Book Review: Trust Me, I'm Lying by Ryan Holiday

I will never believe anything I read on the internet ever again.

So maybe that's a little overboard, and I've always been, let's say, a skeptical reader of online sources, but I was floored at the deliberate and blatant manipulation Ryan Holiday describes in Trust Me, I'm Lying.

As Holiday puts it, "what rules over the media...rules over the country." How many times have you seen a single sensational story practically take over the media cycle, shunting dozens of other more worthy, more fundamentally-vital-to-life-on-this-planet stories to the side?

Follow the money, Holiday says. It's all about the clicks, the pageviews, the number of eyeballs that will see a story. The more sensational a story, the higher the views and the more money advertisers can charge. Holiday derisively calls this "pageview journalism" - though I quibble with using the term "journalism" to describe it at all - blogging with little regard for facts or accuracy just to get people on the site.
Pageview journalism puffs blogs up and fattens them on a steady diet of guaranteed traffic pullers of a mediocre variety that require little effort to produce. It pulls writers and publishers to the extremes, and only to the extremes--the shocking and the already known...Pageview journalism treats people by what they appear to want--from data that is unrepresentative to say the least--and gives them this and only this until they have forgotten that there could be anything else. It takes the audience at their worst and makes them worse.
Holiday also brings up what makes a post go viral. Virality is, of course, what media manipulators are shooting for. And he quotes research that confirms my observations on social media: "the most powerful predictor of virality is how much anger an article evokes." No wonder we see so much outrage all over the interwebs! It's what sells! It's what moves people to action! (But most often only the very limited action of clicking the "share" button, not actual action that would change the world in a positive direction. Hence, the rise of the term "clicktivist." But I digress.)

Of course, anger isn't the only emotion that prompts people to share:
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...No marketer is ever going to push something with the stink of reasonableness, complexity, or mixed emotions.
As a marketer, Holiday's job is straightforward. "Behind the scenes I work to crank up the valence of articles, relying on scandal, conflict, triviality, titillation, and dogmatism. Whatever will ensure transmission." In this field, "Nuance is a weakness."

Which is why the "reasonableness [and] complexity" I crave are so often missing in online discussions. When the extremes are what sells, when heightened emotions pay the bills, calm, reasoned discourse isn't high on the priority list.

The ease with which people can make up "news stories" out of the flimsiest of "facts" is disturbing. Careful, manipulative editing, mischaracterization and subtly misleading phrasing, and manufactured urgency are all basic tactics to get a "story" on a small blog. It then gets passed "upward to bigger and more credible outlets, which simply link to the previous report and don't bother to verify it." Once even a non-story gets enough online buzz, the buzz itself becomes the story and more legit outlets feel justified in picking it up. Doing real, deep, difficult investigative journalism is hard and time-consuming. "Getting it right is expensive, getting it first is cheap." And getting it first gets you lots and lots of pageviews, even if you get every detail wrong.

There is such a human cost to this mentality. Ordinary people crucified for a one-off comment or tweet, careers ruined by rumor and innuendo, companies driven to bankruptcy. Holiday calls this a "digital blood sport."
There is nothing to be learned from the tragic rise and fall of public men [and women] we see on blogs. That is not their function. Their degradation is mere spectacle that blogs use to sublimate the general anxieties of their readers. To make us feel better by hurting others. To stress that the people we're reading about are freaks, while we are normal.
That's not something I want to be a part of. Do you?

Previous generations had powerful, influential media, too, of course. Television has been a driving force for decades as both a source of entertainment and a filter on reality. Art - television shows - imitated life, and then life imitated that art. "The dominant cultural medium...determines culture itself." Now, instead of television as the dominant cultural medium, we have the Internet. But rather than entertainment,
the Internet worships a different god: Traffic. It lives and dies by clicks, because that's what drives ad revenue and influence. The central question for the Internet is not, Is it entertaining? but, Will this get attention? Will it spread? ... Rather than turn the world into entertainment, these forces reduce it to conflict, controversy, and crap.
We are being lulled into a false sense of security about the "reality" of the world we live in. We are gradually being led to switch off our brains and to simply accept opinions delivered in an emotional way as fact. We are capable of more than "conflict, controversy, and crap."
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...
So what can we do? First, realize that you are a commodity to marketers. Every time you click on a "clickbait" headline to read the story, you become a product they are selling to advertisers. Stop reading the trash.

Second, recognize that you are being manipulated. The outrage you feel is sincere, of course, but is probably not based in reality. Take a deep breath, step back, and look for facts and data from various reliable and balanced sources before passing on that post that is written specifically to get you riled up. I promise, there are plenty of real stories to get angry about; don't waste your time and outrage on the sensationalized, trumped up ones.

Third, as you're reading, ask yourself "What do I plan to do with this information?" And if the answer is "nothing," reconsider what you're reading. Holiday points out that "There is no practical purpose in our lives for most of what blogs produce other than distraction." It's up to us to choose better. "When readers start demanding quality over quantity, the economics of Internet content will change." So demand better.  Read well-done, thorough analyses by experts and professional journalists, especially when they disagree. Avoid the emotionally-manipulative, explosively-outraged polemicist whose job is - and whose paycheck depends on - making you angry.

It takes work and effort to search out various viewpoints and resources, to seek for the nuance and complexities that don't make it into 100-200 word posts, especially when it's so easy to just mindlessly click those and have opinion spoon-fed to you as unassailable facts. But we have brains for a reason. Let's use them for good.

Of course, Trust Me, I'm Lying was written by a master manipulator who made millions by stoking outrage and ratcheting up the emotional impact of stories, so how much of all this can we believe?


Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator
by Ryan Holiday
ISBN: 9781591845539
Buy it from Amazon here: (hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook)
Find it at a local independent bookseller.
Look it up on Goodreads.
Check it out at your local library (find the nearest one here).

1 comment:

  1. Awesome review.

    Mine was a bit shorter, but I loved the book.