Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Trust Me, I'm Lying by Ryan Holliday

I just finished this and this is definitely a must read! It’s super eye-opening, although it’s also very disheartening and will make you very cynical. So prepare yourselves for a long review because I’m really going to summarise this book.

Trust Me, I’m Lying is basically a book about exposing the dark side of online/modern media. It’s broken into two parts and to start, let’s go back in time to the history of newspapers.

First, there was the party press, which was to explain party policies to members. This is mainly editorial and based on a subscription model. After that came the yellow press, which fought for daily sales. Since they had to sell themselves anew every day, they relied on gossip and sensation. The third stage is the modern stable press, which went back to subscriptions. Since there was a fairly stable income, they had room for more nuance and discussion, and reputation started to matter more than notoriety. Of course, it wasn’t perfect, because the paper had to please its readers, but it was better than yellow journalism.

Right now, however, the internet/new media is in the yellow press stage. Blogs (the books generic term for everything on the internet) make money by generating pageviews (for the ads). Scoops lead to traffic which lead to money, which means that there’s a built in incentive for sensationalism. And with the thousands of blogs competing for your attention, there isn’t much incentive to take the time to fact-check, because that time could mean that you break the news second, not first.

These blogs get their news by something called ‘trading up the chain’. Holliday defines the chain as having three big stages: an entry point (small, local blogs), legacy media (sites like wired), and national news (New York times). Because they want to break the news, blogs will look downwards to the smaller sites for ‘scoops’, which means that if you can disseminate information at the entry level, it can reach the big leagues.

To add to that, the time-pressed nature of journalism (thanks to the CNN effect) means that journalists are dependent on self-interested sources, which can be easily manipulated (sites like HARO - Help A Reporter Out basically ask people to submit tips). And because they need to churn out articles, press releases and Wikipedia can be used to make news too.

In fact, this digital news environment is a product of the link economy, which “is designed to conform and support, not to question and correct.” If you think about the origins of PageRank (Google’s algorithm), which uses the number of links back to a page to judge relevance, then it’s easy to see how a vicious cycle of fake news is created.

I’m guessing you can see how all this can be manipulated - you can plant fake news at the lower levels and use the news cycle to ‘alter reality’ (he uses the example of how he defaced Tucker Max’s billboards to raise awareness of Tucker Max’s books). You can also bribe reporters, not only with free gifts, but the hope of future jobs and tips that help them with their current jobs.

Even in Singapore, you can see how it works. For example, sites like mothership often use Facebook posts and even Dayre posts as ‘news’ sources. And what about the time someone discovered that the same few people were forever being quoted in the articles by the Straits Times?

So the first part is on how the news is made and can be manipulated. A few other points that I thought were good included:

- Headlines tend to be ambiguous (and he also repeated something I’ve heard and believe: if the headline asks a question, the answer is probably ‘no’?)

- People tend to believe the news is what’s important, instead of realising that the news is content that made it past the filters

- There is a trend towards shorter, easier to read pieces which tend to take the nuance out of things.

The second part of the book names some of the worst media manipulators and looks at the effects of this new digital news environment.

People Holliday names as master manipulators include Irin Carmon, Breitbart, Steve Bannon, James O’Keefe, and Charles Johnson. He also talks a lot about how this news environment contributed to fake news and made three very interesting points:

First, the best way to get your message out is to make your critics angry. When they’re angry, they’ll respond and invariably spread your message. Your best bet is to stay quiet and let them embarrass themselves.

Two, there is something called narcotising dysfunction, where we “mistake the business of the media with real knowledge and confuse spending time consuming that with doing something.”

Third, that you can recognise snark when you realise that there is no way to reply to it because it doesn’t actually have any substance. It’s just an effective way to dismiss criticisms that one doesn’t like and enforce social norms.

So, where do we go from here? Holliday mentions a re-emergence of the subscription model, citing the New York Time’s new paywall model. He doesn’t talk about mention patreon, but I think it could also help with breaking the “need for page-views” cycle. If people trust you enough to pay for your stories, then you don’t have as much pressure to push out unverified stories.

For example, if you trust sgbudgetbabe and her investment analysis (and there is absolutely no reason to trust her), you could choose to support her patreon and get her analysis first. That support will help her to continue being able to give unbiased investment news and analysis.

He also mentions the need to draw a line in the sand, which is something that Singapore does (I suppose I should add that I never really found the rules here draconian since you’ll be fine if you tell the truth).

The appendix is also worth reading since it contains articles and interviews with people who admit manipulating the news (including the guy who convinced newspapers that chocolate would help you lose weight)

I already knew some of this, but I never knew it was that bad, so if you’re curious about how the news work, or even if you’re not, you need to read this. It’s probably going to dishearten you because you’ll see how easily the news can be manipulated (and has been manipulated) but knowledge is power and if we want to be informed citizens, we must know how to get to the truth.

Books mentioned in this book (which I’m going to read)

1. Say Everything: How Blogging Began, What It's Becoming, and Why It Matters by Scott Rosenberg

2. Being Wrong: Adventures in the margin of error by Katherine Schulz

3. So You’ve been publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (I’ve read this and it’s a fantastic read if you wanna look into the whole online shaming thing).

4. Not a book, but the article on how to be an Amazon Bestseller by someone in his company is a hoot! I read it a couple of years ago but didn’t connect the article with this book until he mentioned it.

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