The cult classic that predicted the rise of fake news—revised and updated for the post-Trump, post-Gawker age.
Hailed as "astonishing and disturbing" by the
Financial Times and "essential reading" by TechCrunch at its original publication, former American Apparel marketing director Ryan Holiday’s first book sounded a prescient alarm about the dangers of fake news. It''s all the more relevant today.
Trust Me, I’m Lying was the first book to blow the lid off the speed and force at which rumors travel online—and get "traded up" the media ecosystem until they become real headlines and generate real responses in the real world. The culprit? Marketers and professional media manipulators, encouraged by the toxic economics of the news business.
Whenever you see a malicious online rumor costs a company millions, politically motivated fake news driving elections, a product or celebrity zooming from total obscurity to viral sensation, or anonymously sourced articles becoming national conversation, someone is behind it. Often someone like Ryan Holiday.
As he explains, “I wrote this book to explain how media manipulators work, how to spot their fingerprints, how to fight them, and how (if you must) to emulate their tactics. Why am I giving away these secrets? Because I’m tired of a world where trolls hijack debates, marketers help write the news, opinion masquerades as fact, algorithms drive everything to extremes, and no one is accountable for any of it. I’m pulling back the curtain because it’s time the public understands how things really work. What you choose to do with this information is up to you.”
“Holiday effectively maps the news media landscape. . . . Media students and bloggers would do well to heed Holiday’s informative, timely, and provocative advice.”
“This book will make online media giants very, very uncomfortable.”
— Drew Curtis, founder, Fark.com
“Ryan Holiday’s brilliant exposé of the unreality of the Internet should be required reading for every thinker in America.”
— Edward Jay Epstein, author of
How America Lost Its Secrets: Edward Snowden, the Man and the Theft
“[Like] Upton Sinclair on the blogosphere.”
— Tyler Cowen, MarginalRevolution.com, author of
Average Is Over
“Ryan Holiday is the internet’s sociopathic id.”
— Dan Mitchell,
“Ryan Holiday is a media genius who promotes, inflates, and hacks some of the biggest names and brands in the world.”
— Chase Jarvis, founder and CEO, CreativeLive
“Ryan has a truly unique perspective on the seedy underbelly of digital culture.”
— Matt Mason, former director of marketing, BitTorrent
“While the observation that the internet favors speed over accuracy is hardly new, Holiday lays out how easily it is to twist it toward any end. . . . Trust Me, I’m Lying provides valuable food for thought regarding how we receive— and perceive— information.”
New York Post
RYAN HOLIDAY is the bestselling author of
The Obstacle Is the Way,
Ego Is the Enemy, Growth Hacker Marketing, Perennial Seller, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into twenty-eight languages and has appeared everywhere from the
Columbia Journalism Review to
Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as multiplatinum musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.
BLOGS MAKE THE NEWS
It is not news that sells papers, but papers that sell news.
—BILL BONNER, MOBS, MESSIAHS, AND MARKETS
I call to your attention an article in the New York Times written at the earliest of the earliest junctures of the 2012 presidential election, nearly two years before votes would be cast.11 It told of a then obscure figure, Tim Pawlenty, the governor of Minnesota. Pawlenty was not yet a presidential candidate. He had no campaign director, no bus, few donors, and little name recognition. In fact, he did not even have a campaign. It was January 2011, after all. What he did have was a beat reporter from the blog Politico following him from town to town with a camera and a laptop, reporting every moment of his noncampaign. It’s a bit peculiar, if you think about it. Even the New York Times, the newspaper that spends millions of dollars a year for a Baghdad bureau, which can fund investigative reports five or ten years in the making, didn’t have a reporter covering Pawlenty. Yet Politico, a blog with only a fraction of the resources of a major newspaper, did. The Times was covering Politico covering a noncandidate. It was a little like a Ponzi scheme, and like all such schemes, it went from boom to bust. Pawlenty became a candidate, coverage of him generated millions of impressions online, then in print, and finally on television, before he flamed out and withdrew from the race. Despite all of this, his candidacy’s impact on the election was significant and real enough that the next Republican front-runner courted Pawlenty’s endorsement. As off-putting as it is, that story seems quaint in light of the 2016 election. I’m not a Tim Pawlenty fan, but he was at least a legitimate politician who conceivably could have run for president. Donald Trump had “considered” a presidential run for as long as I have been alive. His subsequent election actually obscures the extent to which this was all a publicity stunt—clearly he was not too serious about politics or he might have spent at least a few months over thirty years trying to acquire a passing knowledge of policy. At the very least one assumes he might have said fewer dumb, unguarded things when there were microphones around. As late as 2012, he was still playing this publicity game, toying with running because it always made for good headlines. And what became of all this? Nothing. Because there was enough discretion, enough unity within the media that there was still some semblance of a line. Politics was at least partly serious business—and so was reporting the news. But by 2015, when Trump declared his candidacy once again, that was no longer true. He wouldn’t have actually run if he didn’t think things were different, if he didn’t at least subconsciously realize that his incendiary, provocative, and unpredictable personality would be traffic and attention gold online and offline. The man clearly sensed something that most politicians hadn’t yet realized: that the culture of Twitter, the economics of online content, had swallowed everything else in the world. There’s a famous twentieth-century political cartoon about the Associated Press, which was, at the time, the wire service responsible for supplying news to the majority of the newspapers in the United States. In it an AP agent is pouring different bottles into a city’s water supply. The bottles are labeled “lies,” “prejudice,” “slander,” “suppressed facts,” and “hatred.” The image reads: THE NEWS—POISONED AT ITS SOURCE. I think of blogs and social media as today’s newswires. They’re what poisoned the debate and the clarity of a nation of some 325 million people. They’re how we fell for one of the greatest cons in history.
By “blog” I’m referring collectively to all online publishing. That’s everything from Twitter accounts to major newspaper websites to web videos to group blogs with hundreds of writers. I don’t care whether the owners consider themselves blogs or not. The reality is that they are all subject to the same incentives, and they fight for attention with similar tactics.2 Most people don’t understand how today’s information cycle really works. Many have no idea of how much their general worldview is influenced by the way news is generated online. What begins online ends offline. Although there are millions of blogs out there, you’ll notice some mentioned a lot in this book: Gawker Media, Business Insider, Breitbart, Politico, Vox, BuzzFeed, Vice, the Huffington Post, Medium, Drudge Report, and the like. This is not because they are the most widely read, but instead because they are mostly read by the media elite. Not only that, but their proselytizing founders, Nick Denton, Henry Blodget, Jonah Peretti, and Arianna Huffington, have an immense amount of influence as thought leaders. A blog isn’t small if its puny readership is made up of TV producers and writers for national newspapers. It doesn’t matter how many followers someone has if what they produce ends up going viral. Radio DJs and news anchors once filled their broadcasts with newspaper headlines; today they repeat what they read online—certain blogs more than others. Stories from blogs also filter into real conversations and rumors that spread from person to person through word of mouth. In short, blogs are vehicles from which mass media reporters—and your most chatty and “informed” friends—discover and borrow the news. This hidden cycle gives birth to the memes that become our cultural references, the budding stars who become our celebrities, the thinkers who become our gurus, and the news that becomes our news. Think about it: Where do people find stuff today? They find it online. This is just as true for normal people as it is for the so-called gatekeepers. If something is being chatted about on Facebook, Twitter, or Reddit, it will make its way through all other forms of media and eventually into culture itself. That’s a fact. When I figured this out early in my career in public relations, I had a thought that only a naive and destructively ambitious twentysomething would have: If I master the rules that govern blogs, I can be the master of all they determine. It was, essentially, access to a fiat over culture. It may have been a dangerous thought, but it wasn’t hyperbole. In the Pawlenty case, the guy could have become the president of the United States of America. Donald Trump did become president. One early media critic put it this way: We’re a country governed by public opinion, and public opinion is largely governed by the press, so isn’t it critical to understand what governs the press? What rules over the media, he concluded, rules over the country. In this case, what ruled over Politico literally almost ruled over everyone. To understand what makes blogs act—why Politico followed Pawlenty around, why the media ended up giving Trump something like $4.6 billion worth of free publicity—is the key to making them do what you want (or stopping this broken system). Learn their rules, change the game. That’s all it takes to control public opinion.
SO, WHY DID POLITICO FOLLOW PAWLENTY?
On the face of it, it’s pretty crazy. Pawlenty’s phantom candidacy wasn’t newsworthy, and if the New York Times couldn’t afford to pay a reporter to follow him around, Politico shouldn’t have been able to. It wasn’t crazy. Blogs need things to cover. The Times has to fill a newspaper only once per day. A cable news channel has to fill twenty-four hours of programming 365 days a year. But blogs have to fill an infinite amount of space. The site that covers the most stuff wins. Political blogs know that their traffic goes up during election cycles. Since traffic is what they sell to advertisers, elections equal increased revenue. Unfortunately, election cycles come only every few years. Worse still, they end. Blogs have a simple solution: Change reality through the coverage. With Pawlenty, Politico was not only manufacturing a candidate, they were manufacturing an entire leg of the election cycle purely to profit from it. It was a conscious decision. In the story about his business, Politico’s executive editor, Jim VandeHei, tipped his hand to the New York Times: “We were a garage band in 2008, riffing on the fly. Now we’re a 200-person production, with a precise feel and plan. We’re trying to take a leap forward in front of everyone else.” Today, a few election cycles later, Politico has three hundred employees. It has spawned countless competitors, some of whom are even bigger. When a blog like Politico tried to leap in front of everyone else, the person they arbitrarily decided to cover was turned into an actual candidate. The campaign starts gradually, with a few mentions on blogs, moves on to “potential contender,” begins to be considered for debates, and is then included on the ballot. Their platform accumulates real supporters who donate real time and money to the campaign. The campaign buzz is reified by the mass media, who covers and legitimizes whatever is being talked about online. Pawlenty’s campaign may have failed, but for blogs and other media, it was a profitable success. He generated millions of pageviews for blogs, was the subject of dozens of stories in print and online, and had his fair share of television time. When journalists first covered Trump, they loved him because they thought he was a joke. They loved how he polarized the audience and how each crazy thing he said or did made for better headlines. Over time, he became a serious candidate—repeated, incessant media coverage can do that—and despite the supposed liberal bias of the media, they continued to shower him with attention. He was great for business. In case you didn’t catch it, here’s the cycle again:
Political blogs need things to cover; traffic increases during election
Reality (election far away) does not align with this
Political blogs create candidates early, gravitating toward the absurd and controversial; election cycle starts earlier
The person they cover, by virtue of coverage, becomes actual candidate (or president)
Blogs profit (literally); the public loses You’ll see this cycle repeated again and again in this book. It’s true for celebrity gossip, politics, business news, and every other topic blogs cover. The constraints of blogging create artificial content, which is made real and impacts the outcome of real world events. The economics of the internet created a twisted set of incentives that make traffic more important—and more profitable—than the truth. With the mass media—and today, mass culture—relying on the web for the next big thing, it is a set of incentives with massive implications. Blogs need traffic, being first drives traffic, and so entire stories are created out of whole cloth to make that happen. This is just one facet of the economics of blogging, but it’s a critical one. When we understand the logic that drives these business choices, those choices become predictable. And what is predictable can be anticipated, redirected, accelerated, or controlled—however you or I choose. Later in the 2012 election, Politico moved the goalposts again to stay on top. Speed stopped working so well, so they turned to scandal to upend the race once more. Remember Herman Cain, the preposterous, media-created candidate who came after Pawlenty? After surging ahead as the lead contender for the Republican nomination, and becoming the subject of an exhausting number of traffic-friendly blog posts, Cain’s candidacy was utterly decimated by a sensational but still strongly denied scandal reported by . . . you guessed it: Politico.3 And so another noncandidate was created, made real, and then taken out. Another one bit the dust so that blogs could fill their cycle. In some ways the reliability of this cycle—in which despite all the absurdity eventually a normal candidate would win out (be it Mitt Romney or whoever)—was the worst thing that could have happened to us. Because it meant we thought Trump would eventually lose. He’ll eventually come crashing back down to earth. Eventually people will see who he is. He can’t avoid this forever. Except none of that was true. That’s what happens when you feed the monster. It defies all expectations and rules. II
TRADING UP THE CHAIN: HOW TO TURN NOTHING INTO SOMETHING IN THREE WAY-TOO-EASY STEPS
Some people in the press, I think, are just lazy as hell. There are times when I pitch a story and they do it word for word. That’s just embarrassing. They’re adjusting to a time that demands less quality and more quantity. And it works to my advantage most of the time, because I think most reporters have liked me packaging things for them. Most people will opt for what’s easier, so they can move on to the next thing. Reporters are measured by how often their stuff gets on Drudge. It’s a bad way to be, but it’s reality.
—KURT BARDELLA, FORMER PRESS SECRETARY FOR REPUBLICAN CONGRESSMAN DARRELL ISSA
In the introduction I explained a scam I call “trading up the chain.” It’s a strategy I developed that manipulates the media through recursion. I can turn nothing into something by placing a story with a small blog that has very low standards, which then becomes the source for a story by a larger blog, and that, in turn, for a story by larger media outlets. I create, to use the words of one media scholar, a “self-reinforcing news wave.” People like me do this every day. The work I do is not exactly respectable. But I want to explain how it works without any of the negatives associated with my infamous clients. I’ll show how I manipulated the media for a good cause. A friend of mine recently used some of my advice on trading up the chain for the benefit of the charity he runs. This friend needed to raise money to cover the costs of a community art project, and chose to do it through Kickstarter, the crowdsourced fund-raising platform. With just a few days’ work, he turned an obscure cause into a popular internet meme and raised nearly ten thousand dollars to expand the charity internationally. Following the strategy I helped lay out, he made a YouTube video for the Kickstarter page showing off his charity’s work. Not a video of the charity’s best work, or even its most important work, but the work that exaggerated certain elements aimed at helping the video spread. (In this case, two or three examples in exotic locations that actually had the least amount of community benefit.) Next, he wrote a short article for a small local blog in Brooklyn and embedded the video. This site was chosen because its stories were often used or picked up by the New York section of the Huffington Post. As expected, the Huffington Post did bite, and ultimately featured the story as local news in both New York City and Los Angeles. Following my advice, he sent an e?mail from a fake address with these links to a reporter at CBS in Los Angeles, who then did a television piece on it—using mostly clips from my friend’s heavily edited video. In anticipation of all of this, he’d been active on a channel of the social news site Reddit (where users vote on stories and topics they like) during the weeks leading up to his campaign launch in order to build up some connections on the site.
1 See my column “Electile Dysfunction: Why the Media Turned a Foregone Conclusion into a Horse Race” in the New York Observer for a complete account of the 2012 election.
2 I have never been a fan of the word “blogosphere” and will use it only sparingly.
3 To paraphrase Budd Schulberg, from his memoir Moving Pictures: “It is not only a case of the tail wagging the dog, they were trying to take over the bark too.”