“Getting the story out is more important than getting it right”

Technologist: Why did you decide to write Trust Me, I’m Lying, in which you reveal PR tricks while still working as a marketer?

Ryan Holiday: I was initially enthusiastic about my ability to manipulate the media, but I grew tired of watching the system burn clients, friends and strangers. I’m an insider, but not beholden to the system, so I was in a unique position to expose what are essentially open secrets in the media industry. I was trying to say what I think people need to hear. What I do now is advise companies, brands and public figures that are struggling to come to terms with this new reality.

T. What’s an example of a media manipulation you’re proud of?

R. H. There was my “Help-A-Reporter-Out” stunt, which connected online journalists with sources. But the journalists didn’t do much to ensure those sources were legit. With surprising ease, I could be featured in numerous publications, even the New York Times, talking about subjects I knew nothing about (like boat upkeep, insomnia or vinyl records). I wanted to prove that the “experts” you see quoted in the news are often not really experts at all. This happens because outlets care very little about the truth – they just need to churn out material. Most of the news you see every day is in some way manipulated because it has all gone through the same process before being printed. I’ve seen how the sausage is made. Online outlets are looking to get clicks, so they exaggerate, make click-bait headlines and print stories before they check their sources because getting the story out is more important that getting it right.

T. Why are the media so easily manipulated?

R. H. Because of perverse incentives. When you’re running a blog, you have to keep pushing traffic numbers because you’re paid through ad clicks. You get paid based on how many page views your posts get in a month, so of course you’re not going to kill a story you know would do well just because you don’t have all your sources lined up. And if a couple of facts have to be fudged just to make a story, you can just update your post later and there’s no real consequence.

Of course the New York Times is going to be more resistant because it has paying subscribers. This forces them to be responsible to their customers, instead of just focussing on advertising dollars. But clearly they are still susceptible, too.

T. Are we less informed, despite the Internet?

R. H. I don’t think we’re necessarily less informed; there’s just more bad information out there than ever before. In the 19th century newspapers employed newsboys to hawk their product on street corners, beginning a period of what is known as “yellow journalism”. Because these newspapers made their money with sales on the street, they were not beholden to subscribers, just to whatever salacious headline would get people to buy on their way to or from work. Blogs follow the same system today. You don’t pay for a subscription, and you only click on articles because of the headline or because it was shared by a friend – not because it came from a reputable media source.

T. What’s your recipe for creating viral items?

R. H. The most powerful predictor of what spreads online is high-valence emotions. That’s why you now see a lot of media outlets using what is called “outrage porn”. It’s also why they like memes and cute pictures of animals and babies. Writing stories that get readers worked up in one way or another increases social sharing and the number of page views. If you crank up the emotional valence of whatever you’re covering, you increase your chances of it going viral.

T. Can we trust quantitative measures of Internet interest such as trends on Google, Twitter or YouTube?

R. H. It depends on what you’re using them for. A lot of these trends are created artificially from a fake story or meme that doesn’t represent the whole truth. You can easily create trends in the media by having a couple of smaller outlets pick up your story and then presenting the links to bigger outlets as a trend. When the bigger media see that a bunch of smaller blogs have covered something, it becomes a “trend piece” that takes on a life of its own.

T. Can the participatory web, like Wikipedia or Hoaxbusters, act as a counterweight and restore some balance in fact-checking – or will corporate PR always be quicker and more powerful in inventing its own truth?

R. H. I think people are always going to find ways to ma­nipulate the system. In my book I talk a lot about how Wikipedia can be gamed. I’ve seen it happen in the past, and I don’t see any signs of it stopping.

It’s kind of like performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports. People say the dopers will always be a step ahead of the testers. In the media, people will always be looking for ways around fact-checking and responsible journalism – unless industry incentives and what we measure start to change for the better.