In his book ‘Trust me, I’m lying’ Ryan Holiday describes the downsides of our online blogging media. As a professional media manipulator Holiday knows what he is talking about (he worked for clients like Tucker Max, Robert Greene or American Apparel) and shows how easy it is to misinform or manipulate the masses through manipulating blogs.
Trading up the chain
The main tactic he uses for that is something he calls “trading up the chain”. For that he gives a small, often local blog a story or even just a tip that includes his clients and is likely to polarize. Often he deliberately plans and creates the ‘scandal’ himself, for example when he first put up billboards to advertise for Tucker Max’s new book release, then vandalized some of them himself, took pictures of the vandalized posters and sent them to a local blog, saying that “it is good to know that this scumbag is not welcome in this town”.
The blog is likely to run that story without doing much research, because it is small, understaffed and under constant time pressure.
Now the trading up the chain begins: bigger blogs pick up the story from the smaller, also not doing research, assuming that the smaller blog did (which they didn’t). They sensationalize the story even further and turn speculations into facts.
The bigger the story gets, the more respectable do the news channels become that cover it. What started as a fake story in a local blog can this way make national TV news on CNN, simply through trading up the chain. Each link of the chain is legitimizing the story more.
Why blogs can be manipulated
The reason this system works with online news is simple: Blogs don’t care whether something is true or not. The only thing they care about is the number of clicks a story gets. This is all their business model revolves around: by selling ad space they earn money with every impression the ad makes. More clicks = more money.
This of course is a very dangerous system! Integrity, commitment to the truth and the intention to make peoples’ lives better get replaced by scamming, click-baiting and constantly dumbing people down.
How we suffer from it
Simply put, we don’t get the truth. Instead, we get fed what spreads. The more emotion an article evokes, the more it spreads, the more money the blog makes. The best emotion for that is anger and outrage. Nothing brings more clicks and comments, nothing spreads better (remember Julien Blanc?).
So blogs do everything possible to sensationalize first and care about the truth second. In their opinion, if something is initially reported incorrectly they can still correct it later. They call this iterated journalism, and it suits blogs perfectly since it allows them to create even more traffic when they constantly have to post corrections of earlier posts. By then the lies are already spread of course and no correction can make them undone.
The internet gives more power to the people than ever before in history. But it also dumbs people down, misinforms them and tries to outrage them over non-news. So we have a very active and powerful online community that is strategically manipulated by sites like Gawker, Buzzfeed or The Huffington Post. These sites however are itself manipulated by people like Ryan Holiday for their own interest.
It is a very dangerous situation to be in, which caused Ryan Holiday to quit manipulating and publish this book in order to pull back the curtain on how ‘news’ come about nowadays.
I talk more about how even I can’t escape the modern blogging machinery in Spreading valuable ideas – The idea behind Wolkify.