Trust Me, I'm Lying

Lately I have slowed my contributions to the pile of evidence, not because the quality of the content has improved, but because hope for anything different would be silly. I’m not so foolish as to expect bloggers to know what they are talking about.

A blog isn’t small if its puny readership is made up of TV producers and writers for national newspapers.

Before you get upset at us, remember: We were only doing what Lindsay Robertson, a blogger from Videogum, Jezebel, and New York magazine’s Vulture blog, taught us to do. In a post explaining to publicists how they could better game bloggers like herself, Lindsay advised focusing “on a lower traffic tier with the (correct) understanding that these days, content filters up as much as it filters down, and often the smaller sites, with their ability to dig deeper into the [I]nternet and be more nimble, act as farm teams for the larger ones.”*1

It’s a simple illusion: Create the perception that the meme already exists and all the reporter (or the music supervisor or celebrity stylist) is doing is popularizing it. They rarely bother to look past the first impressions.

Remember: Every person (with the exception of a few at the top layer) in this ecosystem is under immense pressure to produce content under the tightest of deadlines. Yes, you have something to sell. But more than ever they desperately, desperately need to buy. The flimsiest of excuses is all it takes.

The assumptions of blogging and their owners present obvious vulnerabilities that people like me exploit. They allow us to control what is in the media, because the media is too busy chasing profits to bother trying to stop us.

If you invest early in a blogger, you can buy your influence very cheaply.

According to the story, “the most powerful predictor of virality is how much anger an article evokes” [emphasis mine]. I will say it again: The most powerful predictor of what spreads online is anger.

For instance, in studies where subjects are shown negative video footage (war, an airplane crash, an execution, a natural disaster), they become more aroused, can better recall what happened, pay more attention, and engage more cognitive resources to consume the media than nonnegative footage.5That’s the kind of stuff that will make you hit “share this.” They push your buttons so you’ll press theirs.

“Humiliation should not be suppressed. It should be monetized.”

Through the selective mechanism of what spreads —and gets traffic and pageviews— we get suppression not by omission but by transmission.

The web has only one currency, and you can use any word you want for it—valence, extremes, arousal, powerfulness, excitement—but it adds up to false perception. Which is great if you’re a publisher but not if you’re someone who cares about the people in Detroit. What thrives online is not the writing that reflects anything close to the reality in which you and I live. Nor does it allow for the kind of change that will create the world we wish to live in.

After the reader clicks, they soon discover that the answer to the “question” in their headline is obviously, “No, of course not.” But since it was posed as a question, the blogger wasn’t wrong—they were only asking. “Did Glenn Beck Rape and Murder a Young Girl in 1990?” Sure, I don’t know, whatever gets clicks.

So goes the art of the online publisher: To string the customer along as long as possible, to deliberately not be helpful, is to turn simple readers into pageviewgenerating machines. Publishers know they have to make each new headline even more irresistible than the last, the next article even more inflammatory or less practical to keep getting clicks. It’s a vicious cycle in which, by screwing the reader and getting screwed by me, they must screw the reader harder next time to top what they did before.

As Richard Greenblatt—maybe the greatest hacker who has ever lived—told Wired in 2010, “There’s a dynamic now that says, let’s format our web page so people have to push the button a lot so that they’ll see lots of ads. Basically, the people who win are those who manage to make things the most inconvenient for you.”

I’m fond of a line by Nicolas Chamfort, a French writer, who believed that popular public opinion was the absolute worst kind of opinion. “One can be certain,” he said, “that every generally held idea, every received notion, will be idiocy because it has been able to appeal to the majority.”

Since bloggers must find an angle, they always do. Small news is made to look like big news.

The second half of this book explains why. It is an investigation not in how the dark arts of media manipulation work but of their consequences.

shown merely as a response instead of the refutation that it actually was. No matter how convincing, it only reasserts, in America’s biggest newspaper, Carmon’s faulty claim of sexism on the show. They could never undo what they’d be accused of—no matter how spurious the accusation— they could only deny it. And denials don’t mean anything online.

Today, I’m not impressed anymore. I am depressed. Because the corrupt system I helped build is no longer in anyone’s control. The manipulators are indistinguishable from the publishers and bloggers— the people we were supposed to be manipulating. Everyone is now a victim, including me and the companies I work for. And the costs are incredibly high.

Breitbart was the first employee of the Drudge Report and a founding employee of the Huffington Post. He helped build the dominant conservative and liberal blogs. He’s wasn’t an ideologue; he was an expert on what spreads—a provocateur.

Better than anyone Breitbart understood that the media doesn’t mind being played, because they get something out of it—namely, pageviews, ratings, and readers.

Remember, I’m the guy who put out a press release with the headline: “Tucker Max Responds to CTA Decision: ‘Blow Me.’” I did that because the best way to make your critics work for you is to make them irrationally angry. Blinded with rage or indignation, they spread your message to every ear and media outlet they can find.

If you can put aside the unfortunate fate that befell Sherrod, you can see what masterful music Breitbart and O’Keefe are able to play on the instruments of online media. When they sit down to publish on their blogs, they are not simply political extremists but ruthless seekers of attention. From this attention comes fame and profit—a platform for bestselling books, lucrative speaking and consulting gigs, donations, and millions of dollars in online advertising revenue.

The key, as megawatt liberal blogger Matt Yglesias advised when interviewed for the book Making It in the Political Blogosphere, is to keep readers addicted: “The idea is to discourage people from drifting away. If you give them a break, they might find that there’s something else that’s just as good, and they might go away.”

The interested and informed citizen can congratulate himself on his lofty state of interest and information and neglect to see that he has abstained from decision and action. In short, he takes his secondary contact with the world of political reality, his reading and listening and thinking, as a vicarious performance…. He is concerned. He is informed. And he has all sorts of ideas as to what should be done. But, after he has gotten through his dinner and after he has listened to his favored radio programs and after he has read his second newspaper of the day, it is really time for bed.5

“Talkativeness is afraid of the silence which reveals its emptiness,” Kierkegaard once said. Now you know why sharing, commenting, clicking, and participating are pushed so strongly by blogs and entertainment sites. They don’t want silence. No wonder blogs auto refresh with new material every thirty seconds. Of course they want to send updates to your mobile phone and include you on e-mail alerts. If the users stops for even a second, they may see what is really going on. And then the business model would fall apart.

Jeff Jarvis, who you met here earlier. His credentials as a blogger, journalism professor at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism, and author of books such as What Would Google Do? have made him incredibly influential. Unfortunately, he’s also an idiot,

But as far as I know there is no technology that issues alerts to each trackback or every reader who has read a corrupted article, and there never will be.

One of my favorite books is Kathryn Schulz’s Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. Though media mistakes are not the subject of the book, Schulz does do a good job of explaining why the media so regularly gets it wrong.

When I hear people preach about interconnectedness and interdependence—like one reporter who suggested he and his colleagues begin using the tag NR (neutral retweet) to preface the retweets on Twitter that they were posting but not endorsing—I can’t help but think of the subprime mortgage crisis. I think about one bank that hands off subprime loans to another, which in turn packages them and hands them to another still. Why are you retweeting things you don’t believe in?!

When the entire system is designed to quickly repeat and sensationalize whatever random information it can find, it makes sense that companies would need someone on call 24/7 to put out fires before they start. That person is often someone like me.

Alarmist? Maybe. But I have seen hundreds of millions of dollars of market cap evaporate on the news of some bogus blog post. When the blog Engadget posted a fake e-mail announcing a supposed delay in the release of a new iPhone and Apple operating system, it knocked more than $4 billion off Apple’s stock price.

to have a lawyer draft a letter announcing his intention to file an embarrassing lawsuit, which he could then leak to gossip blogs. Not a real lawsuit, mind you, but the illusion of one through an intention letter. The threat made it on TMZ, ESPN, and a host of other blogs. I ran into the friend recently and learned the outcome of the tactic: They paid him five hundred thousand dollars to go away.

I think about this often. They may have stolen from my friend, but I still shook someone down. What strikes me is not that it was some elaborate, orchestrated con —I don’t feel like I discovered some criminal instinct inside myself either —it’s that the tools were so accessible and easy to use, it was almost difficult not to do so. In fact, it came so effortlessly that I didn’t even remember doing it until he reminded me.

the rumor denied by Apple —Business Insider rewrites the lead with a new angle: “‘Citizen journalism’…just failed its first significant test.”4Yeah, that’s who failed here. You know who didn’t? Those who were shorting Apple stock.

The writer even admitted that the claims were nothing more than “uncorroborated speculation” in the first sentence. But that doesn’t matter. We no longer discuss if rumors are true, only that they being talked about right now.

Another way to look at it, though, is that the greatest success of iterative journalism gave us a story twenty minutes earlier than it would have come otherwise. Bravo. A whole twenty fucking minutes. The world is forever in your debt.

And when they inevitably turn out to be wrong (or have less than the whole story), the subjects find themselves asking the same question that wrongly disgraced former United States secretary of labor Ray Donovan asked the court when he was acquitted of false charges that ruined his career: “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?”

In this model, the audience is viewed as nothing more than a dumb mob to be manipulated and used to create pageviews.

more likely, Jarvis and Arrington know this and don’t care, content to advocate a concept with painful consequences for everyone but them. It’s made them wealthy and influential; what does it matter if the metaphor is wrong?

Software as beta means the risk of small glitches; the news as beta means the risk of a false reality.

It seems cheaper, but it’s not. The costs have just been externalized, to the readers and the subjects of the stories, who write down millions each year in falsely damaged reputations and perceptions. Iterative journalism makes the news cheap to produce but expensive to read.

He refused to apologize for the pain caused by his recklessness, even in the face of a $30 million libel suit. And four years later, when the ordeal finally ended, Drudge still defended iterative journalism: “The great thing about this medium I’m working in is that you can fix things fast.”1 There’s only one word for someone like that: dickhead.

Why do they get to be this way? They’re the ones who were wrong— and it was their job to be right, wasn’t it? Nope. Not according to their philosophy. Remember, the onus for pointing out inaccuracy falls on basically everybody but the person who gets paid to report facts for a living.

“This is all well and good, but what about mistakes of a less blackand-white variety? You know, something a little more complex than whether someone is actually dead or not. What about subtle untruths or slight mischaracterizations? How does one go about getting those corrected?” She laughed: “I love your idea that there can be nuance on the Internet.”

The reality is that while the Internet allows content to be written iteratively, the audience does not read or consume it iteratively.

Suppressing one’s instinct to interpret and speculate, until the totality of evidence arrives, is a skill that detectives and doctors train for years to develop. This is not something us regular humans are good at; in fact, we’re wired to do the opposite.

The science shows that we are not only bad at remaining skeptical, we’re bad at correcting our beliefs when they’re proven wrong. In a University of Michigan study called “When Corrections Fail,” political scholars Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler coined a phrase for it: the “backfire effect.”3After

As the CEO of a viral video agency that did $25 million in billing last year advised me: “Get out there and make your own noise. Advertise the advertising.”

Only when you see this type of coverage for what it is—lazy, cheap, and self-interested—does it lose its allure; only then can you stop watching your own manipulation as entertainment.

The media and the public are supposed to be on the same side. The media, when it’s functioning properly, protects the public against marketers and their ceaseless attempts to trick people into buying things. I’ve come to realize that that is not how it is today.

The proper response to fakeness is not to ineffectually lob rocks at palace windows but to coherently and ceaselessly articulate the problems with the dominant institutions. To stand for and not simply against.

But bloggers of this generation, of my generation, are not those types of people. They are not leaders. They lack the strength and energy to do anything about “the age of doublespeak and idiocy.” All that is left is derision.

As Scott Adams said later in an interview: “Ideas are society’s fuel. I drill a lot of wells; most of them are dry. Sometimes they produce. Sometimes the well catches on fire.”

If controversial ideas are the victims of snark, who benefits from it? Who doesn’t mind snark? Who likes it? The answer is obvious: People with nothing to lose. People who need to be talked about, like attention-hungry reality stars. There is nothing that you could say that would hurt the cast of Jersey Shore. They need you to talk about them, to insult them, and to make fun of them is to do that. They have no reputation to ruin, only notoriety to gain. So the people who thrive under snark are exactly those who we wish would go away, and the people we value most as cultural contributors lurk in the back of the room, hoping not to get noticed and hurt.

After building Assange up, blogs destroyed him, not because he did anything wrong (although he very well may have; let me stress again that this has nothing to do with his guilt or innocence), but because his ascendancy made them feel angry and small, and now they had ammunition to act on those feelings.

Even random citizens who pop into the news because they did something interesting, unusual, or stupid. First we celebrate them, then we turn to snark, and then, finally, to merciless decimation. No wonder only morons and narcissists enter the public sphere.

Blogs are assailed on all sides, by the crushing economics of their business, dishonest sources, inhuman deadlines, pageview quotas, inaccurate information, greedy publishers, poor training, the demands of the audience, and so much more.

“The job of journalism is to provide surprise.”* News is only news if it departs from the routine of daily life. But what if most of what happens is expected? Most things do not depart from the routine. Most things are not worth talking about. But the news must be.

In other words, the media is a mechanism for systematically limiting the information seen by the public. But we seem to think that the news is informing us!

You can’t count on people to restrain themselves from taking advantage of an absurd system—not with millions of dollars at stake. Not when the last line of defense—the fourth estate, known as the media—is involved in the cash grab too.

I use unreality to get free publicity. Cheney used his media manipulations to drive the public toward war. And no one knew until it was way too late.

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.

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.

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.

My mission was to rip back the curtain and expose a problem that thus far everyone else has been too intimidated or self-interested to discuss openly: Our dominant cultural medium—the web—is hopelessly broken.

We’ve assumed it was our duty to sort through the muck and garbage to find the occasional gem, to do their fact-checking for them, to correct their mistakes and call ourselves contributors, when actually we’re cogs. We never asked the critical question: If we have to do all the work, what are we paying you guys for?

Both I and my clients profited greatly from the manipulations I confessed here: Millions of books were sold, celebrity was created, and brands were reinvigorated and built. But we also paid very heavily for those gains with currency like dignity, respect, and trust. Deep down I suspect that the losses may not have been worth the cost.

You cannot have your news instantly and have it done well. You cannot have your news reduced to 140 characters or less without losing large parts of it. You cannot manipulate the news but not expect it to be manipulated against you. You cannot have your news for free; you can only obscure the costs.