Reality Bending Through Media Manipulation

As a student of persuasion, NLP, and hypnosis, I’ve spotted a new form of “reality bending” in recent months. Media hoaxes are the latest form of manipulating people’s attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions. If you want to manipulate a layperson’s belief in a given area, all you need to do is talk to the right people and reality changes right before your eyes.

Most journalists are lazy in their work. Look at former American Apparel CEO Ryan Holliday’s stunt with the service HARO, an acronym for “Help A Reporter Out.” In a short time the Observer’s Editor at Large managed to pose as an “expert” on everything from repairing antique ships to vinyl preservation. The “journalists” who didn’t want to actually check their source took his word as gospel on their given subject and went to press, unaware they’d been lied to and were feeding the public lies.

You may have seen this story of a Muslim father who allegedly killed his son for being gay. This AP-reported story was picked up by more outlets than CNN. Most every news source “covering” the story contained the exact same AP-reported language. Only after guys like Mike Cernovich dug deeper into the story were these same news outlets forced to change their tone.

It’s not entirely the press’s fault. Some times the hoax begins on social media, like the story of a spike in trans suicides following the 2016 Presidential election. Anecdotal evidence on social media that fits a chosen narrative makes its way into the mainstream press until someone with actual credibility like Elizabeth Nolan Brown does some fact checking. Then the chosen narrative, like a world where LGBTQ individuals must live in fear of a Trump administration, falls apart.

“The Press, Watson, is a most valuable institution, if you only know how to use it.”–Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1904.

As an experiment, I took an article from the New York Times this week exposing some of the “Day 1: Trump’s America” hate crimes and shared it on Facebook. The results were astounding. Many of my liberal and conservative friends nodded their heads and acknowledged the Paper of Record’s credibility on the issue, when they’d previously turned a blind eye to the Carlos Slim owned media outlet’s acknowledged bias against conservatives. Others screamed “Just because a couple of incidents were false doesn’t mean there’s hate crimes spreading everywhere.”

I’d be willing to predict these are the same folks that said “Okay, so that whole Rolling Stone article about a UVA range rape was false, but it’s important to have a discussion about rape culture on college campuses.”

It’s gotten to the point where if you watched the final days of the 2016 Presidential election, you’d think you were seeing two realities, as Scott Adams said.

Why do these people continue to fabricate stories? Why is the press so complicit in lies? It’s a simple question to answer. If you had the power to control the public’s thoughts, emotions, and beliefs, wouldn’t you be tempted to use that power to reach whatever goal you chose? Be honest as you ask yourself that question. It’s why the press decided to abuse it relentlessly.

For the individuals who fake the issues the press reports, it’s usually a matter of attention-seeking. That doesn’t matter in a world where bloggers control the main press, and the story is “traded up the chain” as Holliday put it in his best-selling book Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. It’s how you get a pastor to fake a story about a Whole Foods cake to hit mainstream press.

It’s time the world wakes up. The press doesn’t give you the truth. They’ve been feeding you a narrative for years, one you bought into because it comfortably fit your vision of the world. The lies they spread are ones you want to hear, because it’s comforting to see your worldview as right. Cognitive dissonance is quite the bitch when it hits you, and the press won’t stop hoaxing you until someone makes them.

Those people will be the mad, the passionate, the ones who give a damn about the truth. Those people will be the ever-vigilant fact checkers who call the lazy out on their shit. They will be, to borrow from Warren Ellis, the New Scum. And they’re already watching.

Book Review: Trust Me, I’m Lying

If you pay close enough attention and question everything you see, you probably by now know the media lies to you on a consistent basis and perpetuates hoaxes without regard to the truth. What you didn’t know is Ryan Holiday, the former Director of Marketing for American Apparel, wrote the book on it three years ago. “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator” is the playbook of the hoaxing journalist exposed, as well as the secrets of those who pull at their strings to advance a given narrative. Here’s the takeaways from Holiday’s book:

1. Journalism as we once perceived it is dead, now fueled by a blog based economy prone to manipulation. 

Our former belief structure concerning news was that reporters would take the time to question subjects, investigate facts, and then present the news to the readers or viewers. Today, the model involves taking nuggets of information from blogs or lazy sourcing outlets like “Help A Reporter Out,” turning it into a series of links used for “credibility,” and then advancing that story to a “major” news outlet like the New York Times or Washington Post.

This structure, advocated by media “influencers” like Jeff Jarvis, Henry Blodget, and Nick Denton is incredibly prone to manipulation by people who know websites depend on page views and bloggers who need eyes on their work every hour. Fake an email account, send something outrageous to a blog writer needing web traffic for the day, and you’ve managed to start the seeds for a media hoax.

2. In today’s news, feelings matter more than facts.

If you want to make sure your story gets the attention of a major media outlet the best thing you can possibly do is play on emotion. Happiness is good, but it doesn’t match the levels of attention one gets by exploiting anger and outrage. That’s why so many articles you see gaining traction are what I’ve referred to for a long time as “outrage porn.” Slate, Salon, Jezebel, and the now defunct Gawker are perfect examples of all this, but it’s interesting to see even “credible” publications like The Atlantic go in this route as November approaches.

After reading Holiday’s book, and thinking about it in the context of the current election cycle coverage, it’s quite laughable to look back and see the media print articles on how to quell the “hatred” fermenting in America right now, and what can be done to reduce the hate. It’s as if those who bullshit are trying to either make a faux-apology for their bullshit, or simply start another round of ways to play with the unsuspecting public.

3. Truth means nothing in the world of “updates.” 

This is especially true if the headline reads something to the effect of “Did Glenn Back Rape and Murder a Young Girl In 1990?” Holiday points out this is the sort of headline used by clickbait bloggers to get you to read a story that is demonstratively false, or contains numerous lies, and yet still makes it to the front page as “fact.” It’s also easy enough to counter claims of falsehood with statements such as “reliable sources tell us,” “this still developing story,” and more. If there’s an issue later pointed out by a reader, either through online comments or social media, all the poster or an editor has to do is change a few things around, add (UPDATE) to the story title, and then propagate the same bullshit over again.

4. Feed the lie machine long enough and it will come back to bite you. 

It’s very cool how Ryan Holiday includes anecdotes in his book how strategies he used to benefit some of his clients were eventually used against him by other individuals in the media world. I think this is one of the bigger reasons Ryan felt motivated to write “Trust Me, I’m Lying.” By the time people were contacting real estate developers in New York after Holiday emphatically told a reporter “No, we’re not closing any American Apparel stores in New York” he knew the machine he’d helped create and used for the benefit of himself and his clients had grown into a monster that needed exposure, if not shuttering completely.

5. In the media world, it’s all fun and games. No one means a word they say. 

Go back to that point I referenced earlier about outrage and anger driving so much news? If you were to ask the hack at Gizmodo six months from now what made him so angry about Ken Bone, he’d probably wonder what you were talking about. The same goes for the Gawker writer who penned the post that saw Justine Sacco fired by the time she landed in South Africa. No one writing the outrage material actually feels any sort of hatred or anger toward their targets. They just write a hit job then move on to ruining someone or something else in worship of the almighty page view.

This disregard for the subject and continued pursuit for pageviews is a problem of the highest magnitude. It could lead to an era where journalists engaged in “hit pieces” might find themselves unexpected targets. Roosh V wrote a short story outlining such a scenario. Holiday’s work, scarily enough, outlines where Roosh’s fiction might become a reality.

“Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator” is currently in a revised, expanded edition with appendices containing articles Holiday’s written on media hoaxes and manipulation, as well as case studies of hoaxes he started, how they played out in real time, and how the end results either benefitted or harmed him. I highly recommend you purchase the revised, expanded version if possible for that material’s value.

Ryan Holiday’s book is a wealth of information on how you’re lied to by the media daily. As he says in the introduction, “what you do with this information is up to you.”