Brain Pickings

Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator

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How the economics of the Internet are exploited to change public perception.

I like to believe the role of public media — of good public media, at least — is to frame for people what matters in the world and why. E. B. White, ever the idealist, famously said that the role of the writer should be “to lift people up, not lower them down” because “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” But the currencies of what’s essentially a question of motive change dramatically when public media become big business, and the kind of life they inform and shape can become a gross and dangerous aberration of reality, of what really matters from a humanistic perspective. Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator (public library) by Ryan Holiday lives somewhere between The Influencing Machine, The Filter Bubble, and The Information Diet, exploring precisely what happens when these motives become business motives and not motives of civic responsibility. And Holiday should know — former media strategist for clients of Dov Charney’s notoriety and current marketing director of American Apparel, the college-dropout-turned-communications-mastermind has been, as he puts it, “paid to deceive” on behalf of world-famous authors, musicians, movie moguls, and politicians alike.

Holiday proudly professes:

Usually, it is a simple hustle. Someone pays me, I manufacture a story for them, and we trade it up the chain — from a tiny blog to Gawker to a website of a local news network to the Huffington Post to the major newspapers to cable news and back again, until the unreal becomes real. Sometimes I start by planting a story. Sometimes I put out a press release or ask a friend to break a story on their blog. Sometimes I ‘leak’ a document. Sometimes I fabricate a document and leak that. Really, it can be anything, from vandalizing a Wikipedia page to producing an expensive viral video. However the play starts, the end is the same: The economics of the Internet are exploited to change public perception — and sell product.

If it sounds appalling and revolting and like the end of the free press, it’s because it is — but lest we forget, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator is also a product, and if selling it requires a calculated maneuver of scandalization, then it’s both fair game and meta-commentary on the very system within which Holiday plays.

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