“Trust Me, I’m Lying” (2012) is a sort of memoir / confession diary of a Ryan Holiday, a self-referred “media manipulator“.
- The current digital media system has poor quality or non-existent quality controls
- That makes is prone to easy exploitation. And that’s bad news for (almost) all of us
- The news is all about sensationalism to get your clicks and sell your time to advertisers
- The best marketers are Machiavellians who manipulate the media to sell
“Trust Me, I’m Lying” is divided into two sections: the techniques to manipulate media and the consequences of a media system and landscape which is so easy to manipulate.
The whole book is peppered by personal experiences and by Ryan’s commentary, which is the real added value of “Trust Me, I’m Lying”.
Techniques to Manipulate Media
Qw quickly review here the Machiavellian techniques Ryan Holiday describes to manipulate the media.
As a note, Ryan uses the term “blogger” to describe any kind of digital interaction with an audience, going from an actual blog to a tweet to a bigger news portal.
- Help pay bloggers bills
Help a blogger who is starting out, and they will remember later on when you need some coverage.
- Tell bloggers exactly what they want to hear
Bloggers don’t really look at facts.
Indeed, sometimes they start with a story already in mind and are only looking to cherry-pick quotes to fit their narratives.
If you want to be cited and quoted, don’t tell them facts: tell them what they want to hear.
Another technique is to pass them something that looks and seems juicy, like a (fake) “leaked document”.
- It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to be shareable
The news you publish and the information you pass to bloggers must not be good or, God forbid, true. It must be “shareable”.
Gloom doesn’t get shared, but anger does. Positive and surprising emotions shares.
Reasonableness and neutral emotions don’t get scared.
If an article or quote doesn’t get shared, does it even exist?
- Tricking their readers is key
This technique is basically what’s today called “clickbait“.
Clickbait means using an attention-grabbing headline which might or might not be connected to the full article.
However, once the click has happened, the ad impression has been delivered and the blogger is happy.
As a media manipulator, you should approach bloggers the same way they approach their readers.
Give them a sense of mystery, raise a feather-ruffling question, and see them do the same as their readers.
A great article is no more valuable than a clickable poor one
- Sell so they can then sell
The rules have changed in online media.
Bloggers are not looking anymore for loyal readers: they are after the ad impression’s “smash and grab”.
Sensationalism and scoop are the new keywords and golden
Sex, scandal, hatred, extremism, sensationalism… This is what sells, and this is what you must give them.
Bloggers steal your time to sell it to advertisers
- Killer headlines
Actually, even more: with the news you don’t get a chance of changing anyone’s mind if they don’t click first.
Information that can’t be turned into a killer hadline is not worth publishing, so you must hep te blogger make a killer headline.
Perusive readers are no better than accidental readers
- Page views are king
Bloggers and journalists are under pressure to produce as much content as possible.
They are low paid, and often their pay is tied to how much revenue and clicks they can generate.
It’s a hard and difficult pressure environment to work on, and that means they will really appreciate it if you can help them get some traffic. So when they write about you, share their news on your personal and company’s blog.
- Use sound-bites
Bloggers need a high churn of information. That means that deep and well-thought information does not work: you must share with them sound bites.
Bloggers take the audience at their worst and make them worst
- Fake it when necessary
Most news and articles are dull… Unless you can help the bloggers find an “interesting” angle to take.
If that means exaggerating or bending the truth, then be it. Everyone is doing it anyway.
HARO Is Self-Promotion
HARO is a tool to connect journalists with expert resources.
In practice, Ryan Holiday says, it’s a tool for self-promotion that looks like research.
It’s also the perfect tool to cherry-pick quotes from experts -or so-called experts- to fit the journalist’s narrative. The blogger receives a lot of quotes and opinions and he can just sift through them to pick the ones he likes the most to reverse-engineer the piece that he had already decided to write.
I should know something about it :).
Is The Web (Dis)Empowering?
Since much content on the web has been engineered to consume your time and get your clicks, Ryan Holiday says that the myth that the web is empowering is just that… A myth.
The web is another huge time-sink.
My Note: I don’t fully agree
The way most people use the web is a time-sink.
But it can also be tremendously empowering. Internet certainly did make my life much better -even before ThePowerMoves.com-.
From a psychological and sociological point of view, Ryan Holiday raises a few important points on the darker drives of human nature that lead people to gang up, bully, harass, and abuse others.
He calls them “degradation ceremonies”, and people find a perverse sense of joy and accomplishment in tearing apart someone else.
By building a monster, it makes us feel better to be “normal” or “better than them”.
Attacking makes them feel stronger and in control.
And, of course, jealousy also plays a role. But hitting back at snarks is difficult because the moment you hit back you descend at their level, show they got to you and give them importance. So they are free to spread their gall and hatred.
The Link Economy Degrades Information
Ryan Holiday quotes the
The link economy is one of the main drives of rubbish journalism.
It creates a system of distributed responsibility similar to the subprime mortgage crisis, where everyone takes care of short-term gains while producing rubbish content.
“Don’t believe me? Here is a link, go check the resources”. But nobody checks them and the rubbish piles up.
The link economy is designed to confirm and support, not to question and correct
The link economy has changed the system from what’s happened to what someone has said.
Google’s Backlink System is Bogus
Here Holiday makes a great point I wholeheartedly agree with.
One of the biggest contributing factors for Google’s SERP position is backlinks. The idea is that if a page gets linked to a lot, then it’s high quality. But there is nobody to check and ensure quality, so you can get pages with nice pictrues to attract a lot of backlinks, which in turn help the whole website.
But, at the core, the backlink system is not based on quality but on what’s shareable.
Corrections REINFORCE The Original Mistake
Ryan Holiday lists many instances in which unscrupulous bloggers published wrong information and later refused to withdraw the article.
Often the correction comes in a new post that only a fraction of the readers who read the initial wrong information read.
Or it becomes an update at the bottom of the article with the wrong headline staying exactly the same.
From a psychology point of view which is most interesting to this website, however, I learned of a study showing that corrections often reinforce the original mistaken article.
Those who saw the correction remembered and believed even more strongly in the initial mistaken claim.
This is because the correction re-introduces the initial claim into readers’ minds and forces them to re-run it, which reinforces the association.
We’re not only bad at remaining skeptical, but we are also bad at correcting plainly wrong information.
Real Life Applications
If you are in the publishing industry, there is a lot you can learn here. A few golden nuggets:
Take Control of Your Wikipedia page…
… Or someone else might, and you never know what they are going to write. And just so you know, journalists all rely on Wikipedia.
Learn “Media Speak” to Increase Your Critical Thinking
Here are a few rules to keep in mind as you read and listen to the news:
- When you see “leaked” or “official document”, know that some random guy or a media manipulator emailed the blogger with a probably fake or made up document.
- When you see “breaking” or “we’ll have more details as the story develops” know that what’s in the news has not been double checked and it’s the equivalent of made-up rumors.
- When you read “sources tell us”, know that those sources are rarely vetted and they are desperate for attention.
- When you read “exclusive” know that the source has cut a deal for favorable coverage. And that he probably gave that “exclusive” to other websites as well.
- When you read “we reached to so and so”, know that they sent an email 2 minutes before publishing long after they had already prepared and finalized the article.
- When you see “updated” know that there has likely been very little editing and someone just copy-pasted some new lines from some other random sources (see link economy)
I loved and deeply enjoyed “Trust Me, I’m Lying”, but there are few points I need to raise:
- I’m Not Too Convinced of “Manipulations’ Effectiveness”
Reading “Trust me, I’m Lying” you might get the feeling that we live in a world where smart manipulators can get people to write whatever they please to influence public opinion.
But I see the world a bit more chaotic and random (see Fooled by Randomness).
He talks a lot of his campaign for Tucker Max movie which, in the end… Resulted in relatively poor performance -a relative commercial
That to me says a lot about the limitations and complexities of being a media manipulator: you’re not the master of puppets. You’re just an actor… In a play full of actors. And your influence is bound to be limited.
Indeed, as Holiday admits, the system can end up turning against you and “it feeds on itself”.
- These rules don’t apply to all websites (anymore)
These rules don’t apply to all digital publishing and websites. It’s not true anymore today that a “perusive reader is the same as an accidental one” since Google likely measures bounce rates, dwell times, and other indicators of quality interaction with the users.
Same goes for the article’s length: Google prefers longer articles for SERP placement.
It might still be true for more news-heavy sites though.
A wonderful critical overview of the digital media landscape.
Also brief and to the point, with wonderful example and narrated in a very informal, captivating tone.
It will also help you to better understand human nature.
You can read more on how to trick the media in How to Lie With Statistics and The Art of The Deal.
And you can read more from Ryan Holiday with Ego Is The Enemy and The Obstacle Is The Way (his best book in my opinion).
I really enjoyed “Trust Me, I’m Lying”.
But it’s still a wonderful insider’s view on the digital news publishing industry.
Like Ryan Holiday says, whether you see it as a weakness or as an opportunity, depends on you.
But I hope that even if you see it as an opportunity, you won’t use it for really bad causes.
And for all of those who don’t work in the digital blogosphere, this is still a wonderful book to increase your critical thinking, distance yourself from the rumors’ mill that the news is, and, even more deeply, to better understand the world and the human nature.
As Robert Greene, author of The 48 Laws of Power said: “self-interest is the currency that runs the world”.
And the media landscape reflects a system of warped, toxic self-interest that doesn’t add up to do good for the whole.