Lying Liars, Journalists, Manipulation, etc.

When the news is decided not by what is important but by what readers are clicking; when the cycle is so fast that the news cannot be anything else but consistently and regularly incomplete; when dubious scandals scuttle election bids or knock billions from the market caps of publicly traded companies; when the news frequently covers itself in stories about ‘how the story unfolded’—media manipulation is the status quo. It becomes, as Daniel Boorstin, author The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, once put it, a “thicket …which stands between us and the facts of life.

Today the media—driven by blogs—is assailed on all sides, by the crushing economics of their business, dishonest sources, inhuman deadlines, pageview quotas, inaccurate information, greedy publishers, poor training, the demands of the audience, and so much more. These incentives are real, whether you’re the Huffington Post or CNN or some tiny blog. They warp everything you read online—and let me tell you, thumbnail-cheating YouTube videos and paid-edit Wikipedia articles are only the beginning.

That’s Ryan Holiday, self-styled “media manipulator,” writing about the reason it’s so easy to detourn the media these days, in Forbes. He’s so skilled at it, he says, he’s even written a book about his experiences, called Trust Me, I’m A Liar – as well as being the subject, two days later, of a profile… in Forbes:

Holiday does it for the attention, the opportunity to point out some of the excesses of the modern blogosphere, and the LOLs. Empires will not fall because he claimed someone once sneezed on him. Still, it gives one reason to stop and think about what the quest for traffic and eyeballs does to news. Depending on how you look at it, stunts like this either erode the trust a reader has in a publication, or point out that it may have been misplaced to begin with. It’s not a big leap to imagine somebody using those same tools for more nefarious purposes.

“A well made article and a poorly made article both do clicks the same way,” says Holiday. “There’s no incentive to do good work. We know that quotas make cops do shitty things, or academic admissions offices do shitty things, and they make bloggers do shitty things too.”

His theory is that, with so much output expected of journalists and writers these days, sources can easily lie and get away with it because the time to fact check is at a minimum, and the need to be “first” is king. There’s definitely something to these criticisms – Look at the Healthcare reporting or, on a far smaller scale, Kate Kotler’s misreporting of a San Diego Comic-Con press conference and then vehement defense of said before reality and an editor forced an awkward apology for proof (The Kotler thing has been in my brain for a few days now; there’s something to be written about it, but I’m not sure what just yet) – but I can’t escape the fact that what is actually happening here is that someone is saying “These people are under pressure so I am breaking trust just to prove that I can, aren’t I a hero?” And the answer, for me, is “No, you’re a dick.”

This whole subject is a hot topic right now, thanks to Greenpeace’s ArcticReady campaign, in which they have created social media accounts and websites pretending to be Shell oil, and gone about pretending to be inept, mean and generally pathetic. As a prank, it’s working; lots and lots of people are sharing links about how terrible Shell is, and ha ha they don’t get how Twitter works. But, thing is, none of those people know they’re being lied to. Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but my reaction to this isn’t “Yay, you’re proving a point!” but “You are lying to people for your own amusement, and that’s not actually okay.” Martin Robins at the New Statesman put it best for me:

The real villain here is Greenpeace. This is an NGO that thinks it is acceptable to lie to the public, to lie to bloggers and journalists, and to then intimidate writers with threatening emails warning of legal action. This absolutely is not okay. I don’t care if you’re saving the Arctic, rescuing kittens from YouTube’s vicious pet-celebrity training camps, or training pandas to pull famine-ridden children out of earthquake debris; to behave in this deceitful way demonstrates an astonishing amount of contempt for the public – not least for environmentalist supporters who spread their message in good faith only to find themselves forced into embarrassing retractions.

And for what? It’s not like there’s any shortage of real scandals to draw attention to. As I write this, Reuters have just reported that Shell could face a US$5 billion fine for a major oil spill off the Nigerian coast that affected 950 square kilometres of water and caused serious harm to local communities. An analysis published last year by the United Nation’s Environment Programme estimated that it could take thirty years to clean up damage to the Ogonil and region in the Niger Delta, pollution caused in part by Shell’s activities in the area. With real scandals like this to cover, inventing fake ones isn’t just unnecessary but actually quite crass.

The defense of “The media are lazy” doesn’t actually hold water here; the media are covering that the Arctic Ready campaign is a lie – I wrote about it for Digital Trends on Monday – but “the media” is outpaced by social media, and the fact that people want to believe the Arctic Ready campaign… which, for me, brings it back to the fact that those whole think they’re lying to expose something are really just exposing the bad sides of themselves and those who listen to them.