How the Online Media Machine Spins Lies
The internet is an evil game of telephone.
We live and breathe the information we consume online.
Whatever we process influences our decisions and affects are opinions. To view the world as it is, and make truly informed decisions, the media we consume must be accurate. But what if it has been modified and adulterated until it is no longer recognizable? What if there are too many versions of “the truth”? How will we be able to work together if we are working from different facts?
We aren’t being lead into an information utopia like some hope for. Instead we find the formation of polarized cesspools of arguing people who can’t agree on the most basic of facts.
If information forms our worldview, then many are living in the land of make-believe.
It may be going in bad direction, but we don’t have to follow along.
In my quest to get to the bottom of how the internet works, I read Trust Me, I’m Lying—Confessions of a Media Manipulator1. Published back in 2012, it exposes naked for all to see the exploitability of the internet media machine.
Ryan Holiday says that the reason he published the book was because he felt guilty. He felt like the world needed to know what was going on behind closed doors. He must have felt like he needed to share his experiences manipulating the media. His unique position as a press agent enabled him to get acquainted with how the machine works, and the incentives of the writers who make it chug.
He told story after story of how changing the online narrative can build and destroy the reputations and fortunes of companies and individuals.
All it takes is a little spin on the truth, a little exaggeration, a sensationalizing touch, and an untruth can travel the rounds of the internet until it becomes truth in the minds of consumers. In the mind of the media manipulator, the damage this causes to readers and victims should be considered collateral, as long as the misinformation campaign meets the objectives of the client.
Thanks for reading the Satrom Signal! I don’t manipulate my subscribers. Promise.
Before we can understand how it is exploited, we need to understand how it is constructed. We need to view the hierarchy of the online media machine.
The hierarchy is separated into three categories. At the first level are the small niche blogs. Holiday describes them as small and hyperlocal. At the next level are the medium size sites. They have similar low-quality editorial standards, but maintain a veneer of legitimacy due to being more selective and having larger audiences. At the final level are the national news organizations. These are the big newspaper names, and cable TV channels. News spreads from the bottom to the top and back down again.
Stories are born at the bottom, where the bottom-feeders live.
This is where the lies first form. If you can get a writer at a publication on this level to post a rumor it will spread along the entire level. What the first blogger posted as a rumor, others will repeat as fact. Even if a writer on this level posts something that was true in the first place, it will be distorted by other reckless journalists. It turns into an evil game of telephone where the news gets more fantastical with each retelling.
The more the story is retold the more credible it will begin to appear. Eventually mid-level sites will cover what the low-level sites have been chattering about. This gives the story even more credibility if it is not true, and more opportunity to distort if it used to be true. After mid-level sites have been covering an issue, it may be picked up by the national press. They have more rigorous standards and will likely only cover it if many mid-level sites already have.
The writers are incentivized to spread lies. Online publications make their money from page views. The more people who view the page, the more people will view the ads on the page, the more money they will make. This pushes writers to craft click-baity articles with little care for the truth. Their strict deadlines and need for virality push them to need new content at a rapid pace.
Media manipulators take advantage of this incentive and use it as a lever.
They contact the writers pseudonymously or as an anonymous source and provide them some juicy fodder to write about. Perhaps they forge a press release, or send over a controversial (or banned) advertisement, or maybe just a rumor. Whatever the case, whatever the manipulators goal, the writers are all to happy to write something that will get them page views.
But what do these manipulators want? It could be anything. For example, a manipulator could craft a fake press release and send it to a writer. The fake press release could cause a panic and short the companies stock. Before anyone is the wiser they can buy the undervalued stock and watch as the price climb back as people sort things out. This is only one example of what is possible, Holiday often crafted controversy around his clients to get them more attention.
The media machine doesn't need a manipulator to contort the truth. These careless journalists are all to happy to distort stories from other publications. Rewriting the story from a different angle and using someone else’s shoddy journalism as the source. So whether they are repeating legitimate news, or something fed by a press agent, it will be repeated and distorted.
The way the online media machine works is a net-negative for everyone. Especially the people who get slandered in nasty rumors, and the readers who are fed the lies. Lies which will spread from the bottom to the very top. Lies we will believe because they are repeated by people we trust who believe the lie themselves.
Our minds are overloaded with news and info, we don’t have the capacity to sift the tares from the wheat. If this process continues, it will only make things worse. If people have a false perception, they won’t be able to make informed decisions. They won’t understand what is really going on, and what they need to do about it to make the world a better place.
The future is bright. Just like the yellow journalism of the late 19th century, the current media machine is shifting back once again towards subscription based models. With privacy regulations getting tighter, and more people using ad blockers, ad revenue is growing thin.
This means that many of the incentives that Ryan Holiday wrote about back in 2012 are vanishing, and being replaced by the incentives that subscription models bring. In this model readers are treated fairly. If a publication produced low-quality, sensational pieces, patrons would simply stop paying and unsubscribe.
We need to remember how easily mistruths spread online. We shouldn’t put too much stock into the narratives being pushed in the popular media. Thankfully, the environment that Holiday wrote about is changing back into a more trustworthy subscription model, but due diligence still remains. We need to protect our minds. We need to remember that we should never, ever, trust in lies.