BROOKE GLADSTONE: As he just observed, we prefer to hear what we expect to hear, harmless perhaps when looping the sound of horses, but it’s a principle often applied by those who would exploit the weaknesses in our information ecosystem. That’s according to Ryan Holiday, author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. He confesses on page 1 to lying, conniving and bribing the media on behalf of bestselling authors and billion-dollar brands. Ryan, welcome to the show.
RYAN HOLIDAY: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, you’re repentant.
RYAN HOLIDAY: In a way, yeah. [LAUGHING]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And yet, you confessed to planting false stories in a number of news outlets just prior to publishing the book. So, is this yet another manipulation for the benefit of Ryan Holiday?
RYAN HOLIDAY: The short answer is if I wanted to manipulate people, I probably wouldn’t write a book saying what a manipulator I am and giving away all my easy [LAUGHS] manipulation secrets.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Unless you’re sick of doing it.
RYAN HOLIDAY: Right, and, and I am. And that’s part of why I’m writing the book, to sort of end this party with a bang.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Briefly describe the business model of the Internet that makes it so particularly easy to manipulate, because let’s stipulate, there was plenty of media manipulation before there was an Internet.
RYAN HOLIDAY: Of, of course. But I think it’s far more prevalent, far less noticed than it ever has been before. Blogs are paid by the page view. A blog has an infinite amount of, of content that it can produce, and every piece of content is more money in its pocket. So the equation is traffic times CPM; the — the amount they’re paid per page view equals their revenue. So it’s this race to the bottom to get as many page views as humanly possible, and that pressure makes blogs really bad, lazy things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay, so let’s get to the cheating, lying and bribing that you describe in the book. Begin with trading up the chain.
RYAN HOLIDAY: Where do reporters find their stories? What people like me do, is knowing where the radar of the influencers is we can register on that radar artificially and create sort of buzz and momentum that gets picked up and then reified to the rest of the media.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So give me an example of how you used it.
RYAN HOLIDAY: I open the book with the story of the movie campaign that I did for the author Tucker Max. And, and what we did was we, we placed billboards strategically around the city of Los Angeles, which then I vandalized and took cell phone photos of and leaking to two local blogs in Los Angeles, Curbed LA and FishbowlLA, knowing that they would bite on that story because it was someone they’d written about and someone they were interested in. They, of course, did.
And then I took links to that story, and I anonymously sent them to a bunch of bigger blogs, including blogs like The Village Voice and Gawker, who then picked it up. And then the next thing you know, we’re being denounced in the editorial page of the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post because these reporters read those sites, and then they see their role as sort of a popularizer of the online buzz.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And these denunciations in the big national papers were triumphs.
RYAN HOLIDAY: Yeah, they were exactly what we wanted. It was one of those movies where the boycott is what makes everyone go to see it. And that’s what we wanted to create.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And the movie was called?
RYAN HOLIDAY: I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] Not a huge amount of harm done, in that case.
RYAN HOLIDAY: No, and –
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But there are cases in which great harm is done. You use the example of Pastor Terry Jones, who threatened and then carried out the burning of The Koran which resulted in riots in which 27 Afghan citizens were killed.
RYAN HOLIDAY: I think he started as a local side show. He would sort of do offensive things that pertained only to his church, to his local community, and he got the occasional story written about him by the local paper. That happens enough times and now the Miami Herald takes notice. And now he’s getting blog posts from all over the world. And when someone like Terry Jones sees suddenly that he has a national platform he steps up his game. He gets crazier and crazier, and now he says, I’m gonna burn a Koran.
The media system can’t police itself and it can’t say no, we’re clearly being manipulated here, let’s not cover it, because the traffic is there, and traffic matters more than anything else.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you quote a Wharton School research project which looked at 7,000 articles on the New York Times Most E-mailed List?
RYAN HOLIDAY: Yeah, and the number one predictor they found was anger. Anger is the number one predictor of an article making that most popular list. And it’s not just anger; it’s any high valence emotion. So humor is one. Awe is another. But let’s look at the emotions that aren’t viral. Those are emotions like sadness or contentment or satisfaction. They’re not in the interest of the media creators to propagate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now let’s talk about bribing.
RYAN HOLIDAY: Let’s talk about bribing. We all know that a blogger shouldn’t write about, let’s say, a stock that they’ve invested in. We know that’s a clear conflict of interest. But since they’re paid by the page view, I see every story they write as a potential conflict of interest. The way they write about it inherently biases them away from the truth and towards what will spread the fastest, what will take the least amount of work and what will ultimately get the most amount of traffic.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So how did you bribe people?
RYAN HOLIDAY: You dangle the angle in front of them, right? I’ll write a draft headline in an article. Or I’ll hint that this has a sexy picture attached to it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So you bribe them with the promise of page views, but it isn’t bribing with dollars.
RYAN HOLIDAY: In a way, it can also be that too. I mean, I — I buy advertisements for a variety of my clients, and if you’re a one-man shop — you’re the guy who’s cashing the checks and writing the posts — and there’s no way that that doesn’t influence who and how you write about things.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now, talk about lying. Give me some examples of your more spectacular lies.
RYAN HOLIDAY: Something that broke last week is what I did through a service called Help a Reporter Out. It’s basically a sort of a back room service where someone says like, oh, I need a source for X, and a source says, oh, I’ll be that source. And so, I kind of felt like this site was leaving the front door wide open for people to come in and basically pretend to be experts about anything.
And so, what I did was for the last six months I’ve pretended to be an expert on this service. I basically told anyone anything that they wanted to hear, even though I didn’t know what I was talking [LAUGHS] about. I said, yeah sure, I’m a — I’m an expert on boats, I’m an expert on, on fitness or insomnia or various health issues. I’m an expert on vinyl records. And, of course, I’m not an expert of vinyl records. I don’t know what LP stands for.
I don’t own a turntable. But I was able to fake it enough to fool a reporter at the New York Times for a Sunday piece about a rising trend. When the reporter was ultimately questioned, he said, “He sounded somewhat credible –
- and not all that different than the other people that I talk to.” And that’s what a New York Times reporter considers to be his burden of proof, to include someone in, you know, the paper of record.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote that, “Bloggers brandish the correction as though it is some magical balm that heals all wounds.”
RYAN HOLIDAY: Bloggers justify this “publish first, verify later” model with the idea that it’s so much easier to issue a correction online, right? You don’t have to wait for the next day’s paper to issue the correction. You can do it right there at the bottom of the story.
But first off, psychologically, that just doesn’t pass muster. They’ve done all sorts of interesting studies and, in fact, there’s something called the backfire effect, where reading a correction actually makes you believe the, the mistake even more than the people who haven’t seen the correction. And so, that affects — like let’s say you’re a publicly traded stock and a blog reports a — a rumor about your company, it doesn’t matter that they corrected it five hours later ‘cause your stock price still took an unnecessary hit because of it, and now investors are worried about your business.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: There are these people who have snuck dangerous things onto planes, they say with the intention of showing how our airport security is, is really bad.
RYAN HOLIDAY: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you worry that your book will be used more as a how-to than as a corrective?
RYAN HOLIDAY: That was something that I thought about a lot, but I ultimately felt like there was no other way to actually get people to pay attention, not say, this stuff could happen but that this stuff does happen, and I know that because I personally did it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Are you manipulating me?
RYAN HOLIDAY: I’m not. I — this is, this is the question that I get most often about this book. I make a lot of money doing this in the shadows. There’s a reason that there weren’t many Google searches for my name as of a week ago. In order for me to function, I required secrecy. Since I no longer want that secrecy, I’m okay exposing this stuff.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ryan, thank you very much.
RYAN HOLIDAY: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The book is called, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.