6 Reasons You Really Can't Believe Anything You Read Online
Everyone knows that the media can be and is manipulated. The problem is that people assume that there's some guy like Robert De Niro's character in Wag the Dog behind the curtain. They think, If we can just catch that guy.
The problem is that guy doesn't really exist. Like with most kinds of negligence, corruption or racket, the problem is much more systemic than it is overt. In fact when you pull back the curtain, what you find is that the usually the media is the one manipulating itself.
Media manipulation isn't new, by the way; people have been complaining about bias and lies in the media since there was a media to complain about. The Internet just found brand new reasons the media is totally fucked. Reasons like ...
Page Views, Page Views, Page Views
There's basically one way to make money in online publishing: advertising. Advertising is almost exclusively sold by the page view (and even when it's not--that's what you're actually buying).
This is the metric that blogs live and die by -- whether they're trying to make money or show growth to investors or possible acquirers. It's also how bloggers themselves are paid. The only problem is you've got to get millions and millions to make much of a profit.
Take Business Insider. They have a simple rule of thumb: Each blogger must produce enough page views to cover their salary three times over for the site to be able to pay overhead, sales, hosting, and so forth. In other words, if your salary at Business Insider is $50K a year (to live in New York, no less), you have to produce close to 2 MILLION page views a month or you're fired. That's slightly better than when Weblogs Inc used to pay bloggers at sites like Slashfood $4 per post, but it's still a fucking grind.
And leads to having to make some hard lifestyle sacrifices.
A few months ago, the Washington Post announced it was hiring a blogger. The job? Just a measly 12 posts a day. Other sites, like Gawker, don't play the volume game but give bonuses for hitting page view quotas. And they have a big flat screen TV in the office that ranks the writers and their articles by traffic. It's basically the same message: Hit your marks or get out.
Even Cracked, which is a pretty cool website that values quality, is subject to this mentality to some degree. You can bet if this article does seven page views, that's going to change whether I get asked back.
Is that going to warp what people write? Well, the next time you see a 16-page slideshow of celebrity underboob, you have your answer.
Conflicts of Interest
In 2011, a guy named Michael Arrington decided to start a venture capital fund to invest in Silicon Valley startups and tech companies. It's crowded space with a lot of smart people who have made a lot of money over the years. But Michael was convinced he had an advantage on all of them. That advantage? He's the founder and editor of a little blog called TechCrunch, which is basically the single most important and influential blog in the entire industry.
Some might call raising $27 million to invest in the companies you write about (as well as getting insider information about them as a journalist) a glaring and totally unethical conflict of interest. On the other hand, Jay Gould would have probably found the hustle delightful.
Game recognize game. Always.
Anyway, basically every blog you read -- particularly those in the technology and financial space -- is similarly conflicted. Take the somewhat new blog PandoDaily, which covers startups and technology. Their investors? Guys like Marc Andreessen, Peter Thiel, Tony Hsieh and Chris Dixon. To clue you in on who they are, they are the owners and investors of sites like PayPal, Zappos, Facebook, LinkedIn, Foursquare -- or, you know, the exact companies PandoDaily writes about every day. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, just dropped $5 million of capital into Business Insider, which writes about Amazon constantly.
Of course, the real conflict of interest online is much more subtle but pernicious. If bloggers are paid by the view, then they have a financial decision to make each time they write and publish: Do I stick with the boring facts or do I spice things up? Will facts drive more clicks (more money) than an EXCITING and INCENDIARY or OTHERWISE UNDERBOOB-FILLED title?
In other words, every blog post is a conflict of interest.
It's All About Provoking a Reaction
What's the best way to get page views? It's to write something that other people share on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumblr, via email, wherever. That's why those big icons are there on every post and video you see. It turns out that as readers, we have certain buttons that make us press those buttons (see what I did there?)
Jonah Berger has done some fascinating studies on what makes articles go viral. It turns out that the No. 1 predictor of an article making the New York Times Most E-Mailed List is how angry it makes the reader. Not that anger is the only thing that works out; basically any extreme emotion will do -- really funny, really arousing, really awesome, really anxious, really afraid. Because think about it: When was the last time you read an article and thought, "Oh OK," and then proceeded to tell everyone in your life about it?
"The Royal Baby's name is STILL George? I HAVE TO TELL EVERYONE!"
Buzzfeed has basically reduced this to a science, as well. They know we love to share nostalgia, and they know we don't like to share sad things. So they produce their listicles accordingly. It's not a coincidence that the tags on the front page of the site are all Internet shorthand for viral emotions: LOL, win, omg, cute, trashy, fail, WTF.
So everything has to be controversial and provocative. Even when it actually isn't (like this fun Gawker headline when Obama did a Reddit AMA: "Obama Grants Interview to Racist Teen Nude Picture Website").
Provoking a reaction has another lucrative benefit for online publishers: It drives comments. The Huffington Post does something like 70 MILLION user comments a year (and, remember, to leave a comment you have to go to a login page and give personal info away). How do sites do it? By baiting you -- by making you so angry or so enthused with agreement that you simply must give them free content and page views by posting your opinion. In other words, that blog post about Trayvon Martin that really moved you? The writer doesn't actually care -- they just cared that you care.
Don't agree with me? Spout off in the comments!
Blogs Will Basically Publish Anything
A short story that makes this abundantly clear. When I sold my first book, I put out a fake press announcement that said I'd received a $500,000 advance. A bunch of blogs wrote about it. Then I sent an anonymous tip to Gawker saying that it was "a celebrity tell-all." Ten minutes later they had a story up about it. (A couple weeks later I printed the article out to skip a credit check for an apartment I was renting.)
One of the few times in history that "I'm a big deal on the Internet" has ever worked out.
That's how it works ... and I'm a nobody. When a juicy tip about some liberal politician comes into Drudge, how vigorously do you think he checks it out? (We have some idea: Before Drudge broke the Monica Lewinsky scandal, he wrongly reported that a Clinton advisor named Sidney Blumenthal was beating his wife. Even though Drudge admitted later that he'd been "had" by an anonymous Republican source, he refused to even apologize to the dude despite a $30 million libel lawsuit.) Or when TMZ gets a celebrity scoop they know will be big? Who is going to look a gift horse in the mouth by fact-checking it?
Sure, sometimes the media get lucky and the anonymous or unverified tip they get turns out to be a massive (and true) story. Take the Manti Te'o story. That fell into Deadspin's lap, and it worked out. Good for them.
But more often when they pull things from social media, from online news wires, from Twitter buzz, from random emails or sources whose agendas they don't check, it blows up in their faces. Like the multiple times Steve Jobs was wrongly reported as dead (before he actually did die). Or the reports that Banksy had been arrested. Or reports of a newly discovered photo of JFK on a yacht with a bunch naked chicks. Or because everyone loves being wrong about Apple, when blogs misreported about an iPhone delay and it cost Apple $4 billion in market cap. Or when the media wrongly named the shooter at Sandy Hook ... and then turned around and wrongly named the suspects in the Boston bombings. Or, like total idiots, thought that the names of the pilots of the Asiana crash were Holee Fuck and Captain Sum Ting Wong on the word of a "summer intern."
Why does this happen? Well, as our friend Michael Arrington once put it, "Getting it first is cheap, getting it right is expensive."
No One Corrects Shit
Because the media is basically under direct financial motivation to shoot first and ask questions later, corrections are pretty important.
Blogs often excuse their mistakes by saying, "Oh, we're not newspapers so it's really easy to correct ourselves." In fact, after four years of dragging-his-heels-like-a-dickbag through legal proceedings, that's what Matt Drudge finally said when he "corrected" his defamatory post about the guy beating his wife: "The great thing about this medium I'm working in is that you can fix things fast."
It's amazing that the weight of the bullshit in that sentence didn't immediately crash his servers.
Except that doesn't matter at all.
A study done by Brendan Nyhan at Dartmouth College basically finds that corrections to news stories don't work at all. In fact, there's a little thing they call the "Backfire Effect," where corrections actually increase misperceptions and make people believe the incorrect story even more than they did previously. So, we're basically fucked. (Ironically, the WSJ's corrections section is called "Corrections and Amplifications.")
As Mark Twain said, "A lie can make it halfway around the world before the truth can put its pants on" (or at least I heard he said that).
I do know that the guy who created the site Is Twitter Wrong, who is an editor over at MSN, described the process of correcting false tweets as "putting toothpaste back in the tube except the toothpaste is alive and didn't like the tube." So yeah, fixing mistakes in online media is pretty much impossible.
It Reshapes the World in Its Image
Neil Postman, maybe our greatest media critic, noticed in the 1980s that the world's events were starting to look a lot more like TV shows. Because television was at that time our main cultural stage, everyone -- generals, politicians, artists -- performed in a way that was most conducive to getting on television.
Well, now the web is that medium. We're basically incapable of thinking bigger than three-minute YouTube clips and 140 characters. Online culture drives offline culture. I mean, the bestselling book of last year was adapted out of online Twilight fan fiction for Christ sakes.
And now Amazon has a fan fiction section.
A few years ago, a writer named Noreen Malone noticed something about all those super viral slideshows of "abandoned" Detroit: There were never any people in them. The problem is that Detroit has one of the largest homeless populations in the United States (not to mention feral dogs and cats). It turns out, those real photos aren't as fun to gawk at because they're sad. They don't spread as well. So we get an altered version of reality that's selected because it does better online. Now, the city is bankrupt, so good for us.
But the Internet was able to help them get the RoboCop statue they so desperately needed.
Those facts are not entirely unrelated. Think about it. We're a country where government and policy are functions of public opinion. Well, today, what influences public opinion? The fucking Internet.
As one of President Obama's aides put it to Michael Lewis, the problem is that the "controversy machine is bigger than the reality machine." So now the rest of us live in the reality that the controversy machine dictates for us. There's a word for it: unreality.
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and the upcoming Growth Hacker Marketing. He recommends a lot of books every month via email.