Confessions of a media manipulator

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First aired on Q (13/08/12)

Self-proclaimed media manipulator Ryan Holiday had a secret. In this age of social media, blogs and the 24-hour news cycle, he had a talent for infiltrating the media to help promote and market his client's wares. His methods included leaking false information, planting stories, organizing publicity stunts and many other clandestine strategies designed to grab the attention of editors, journalists, bloggers and, ultimately, the public.

Now his secret is out. In his new book Trust Me I'm Lying, Holiday outlines the hidden ways people in marketing positions try to manipulate the media to their advantage and how eager reporters and online writers are also complicit in the deceptions. But why is Holiday interested in exposing the lie? And how do we know he's telling the truth about his industry?

"If I wanted to deceive and manipulate people I probably wouldn't have written a book where I expose all the secrets and give away all my best plays," he said on Q recently. "But I did that in this book because I was sort of looking at something a little bit larger than my own personal gain. I want people to understand how this system works and I'm being very truthful about that."

The system, as he came to learn, has become easier to manipulate. According to Holiday, traditional news media have declined, and so have many of the safeguards associated with them. There's less fact-checking, less debate over ethics and fewer veteran journalists with experience to sniff out fraudulent leads. The rise of the blogosphere and social media has made speed and novelty more important news values than before. 

"Blogs didn't really care what they were writing, they just wanted things that would get traffic and attention," he said. "So we would exploit that for our gain. We would plant stories or do publicity stunts, sort of manipulate the news, and what we started noticing was that, hey, blogs were playing the same game that we were, and when that realization struck me, it sort of became a free-for-all. Look, there are no rules, because everyone's out there trying to get their own piece of it, and that's when I really discovered that's how all this works."

trust-me-lying-125.jpgMost blogs play "fast and loose" with the truth, Holiday contends, because they're much more interested in increasing web traffic than getting to the truth. Holiday used to this to maximize small marketing budgets by generating free advertising through viral news stories. For example, in his effort to promote the film adaptation of Tucker Max's raunchy and explicit memoir I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, Holiday's strategy revolved around trying to provoke outrage (or at least manufacture it) to draw public attention. He wanted people to think the groups outside of their target audience (i.e., feminists, conservative groups) were actively trying to protest or boycott the film. So he bought billboards around the U.S. and then paid others to purposely vandalize them. Other pranks followed: a fake Facebook boycott page, leaking photos and comments to blogs, informing groups against the film of the movie's show times so they could organize pickets. Eventually, the perceived backlash against the film caught the attention of mainstream media like the Washington Post.

"The fake news story became a real news story," he said.

Holiday estimates that the film, and the author, received marketing and press exposure that would have been worth tens of millions of dollars, perhaps even hundreds.

It's been a profitable experience for Holiday as well, so why tell all of this to the general public? He says that people aren't thinking critically enough about what they're reading in this modern era, journalists included. If it's been this easy for Holiday to manipulate the media system, what's to stop people from spreading dangerous or harmful misinformation?

"You got to know how the sausage is being made," he said. Now we have to decide if we want to keep eating it.