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Summary: Trust Me, I’m Lying – by Ryan Holiday – Love Your Work, Episode 277
In Trust Me, I’m Lying, Ryan Holiday reveals the media manipulation tactics he used as Marketing Director of American Apparel, and for his PR clients. Meanwhile, he exposes the inner workings of a modern media machine in which incentives make it impossible for the version of reality depicted in the media to come close to resembling the truth. I think it’s Holiday’s best book, and one of the best media studies books.
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So, here, in my own words, is my Trust Me, I’m Lying summary.
Yes, this book is about lying
Before Ryan Holiday became known as an author of modern stoicism books, he dropped out of college at nineteen to apprentice under 48 Laws of Power author, Robert Green. He later was the marketing director for American Apparel, and now has a PR agency, Brass Check, where he advises corporate clients and authors.
As the title of the book suggests, the tactics Holiday confesses to might make your skin crawl. They involve deliberate provocation, bribery, impersonation, and – since it’s called Trust Me, I’m Lying – making stuff up.
But everyone should read it
This may turn people off to the book, but if you’re an author, marketer, entrepreneur, musician, filmmaker, or comedian, you’re in the business of trying to get your message into the world. So, ignore this book at your own peril. The people with whom you compete for attention are using these tactics. Understanding these tactics is a good way to understand the mechanics of media. You can use this knowledge to get your message out in less nefarious ways (more on that later).
And, if you’re someone who thinks it’s your duty to read the news, to “stay informed,” you owe it to yourself to read this book. But be prepared to have that belief challenged, and your conception of reality altered.
Media is a “racket”
Holiday describes the modern media system as a “racket,” the word which Major General Smedley D. Butler once used to describe war. He defined it as something “where only a small group of insiders know what’s really going on and they operate for the benefit of a few and at the expense of basically everyone else.”
Journalists are poor, busy, and desperate for a story
The main insider in the modern media system is the journalist, more generally, a “blogger,” who might be someone writing articles for a small blog, or even a major media outlet such as the Huffington Post. Holiday uses “blogger” and “journalist,” interchangeably, and I will, too.
Journalists are poor
To help you understand the motivations of many of these journalists, Holiday points out this: They might have gone to an expensive grad school, and now live in a big, expensive city, such as NYC, San Francisco, or Washington D.C. They’ve been close enough to taste a $200,000-a-year journalism job.
But now they’re churning out articles at a breakneck pace, without even getting health insurance. Meanwhile, the people they cover are rich and successful, and may include talentless reality TV stars. New York magazine called the result “the rage of the creative underclass.”
Journalists are busy
These bloggers have to write a face-melting amount of content. When journalist Bekah Grant left VentureBeat, she wrote a post saying she averaged five posts a day – more than 1,700 articles in twenty months.
Henry Blodget, founder of Business Insider, said his bloggers need to generate three times their salary, benefits, and overhead costs to be worth hiring. So, an employee making sixty-thousand dollars a year needs to produce 1.8 million page views a month, every month. (1.8 million page views is a lot. At my current traffic, it takes me about a decade to generate that much on my blog, and I make more than sixty-thousand dollars a year.)
Journalists are desperate for a story
Most sites that journalists write for make their money from ads, and the way to make money from ads is to generate page views. As such, many journalists are paid by the page view. I’ve personally heard this from a friend who worked for a newspaper with a good reputation, covering news for a major city.
So, journalists are desperate for a story that will generate page views. So, if you give them a juicy story that will generate page views, they will generally publish it. They’re too busy to fact check it, and since they’re compensated by the page view, they aren’t motivated to care whether or not it’s true.
Readers want to be entertained, and don’t care what’s true
So you’ve got poor, busy, and desperate journalists paid by the page view, and the people they’re writing for want to be entertained.
Negativity attracts attention
In 2010, Jonah Berger analyzed 7,000 articles from the New York Times’ most-emailed list. He found that the best predictor of virality was: how much anger does the article evoke? Increasing the anger rating of an article had two-and-a-half times the impact of increasing its positivity rating.
The human mind is irresistibly attracted to negativity. When subjects of a study were shown footage of war, airplane crashes, and natural disasters, they paid more attention and remembered more than non-negative footage.
Corrections don’t work
Negativity attracts page views, so journalists want juicy stories, and don’t care if they’re true – and neither do readers, it seems.
One study found that when people were shown a fake article with a correction at the bottom, they were more likely to believe it than those who saw an article without a correction. (Note from me: this finding hasn’t been consistent across other studies. (Is that a correction you believe?) In any case, people’s beliefs are still resistant to contrary facts.)
Despite this, online news outlets are financially motivated to publish stories, whether they’re true or not. A Gawker reporter once said, “Gawker believes that publicly airing rumors out is usually the quickest way to get to the truth,” going on to say, “Let’s acknowledge that we can’t vouch for the veracity or truth of the rumors we’ll be sharing here.”
Journalists are motivated to publish false stories, and, as Holiday points out, “While the internet allows content to be written iteratively, the audience does not read or consume it iteratively.” In other words, they see the story, not the correction.
Media manipulation strategy: Trading up the chain
Holiday shares nine media manipulation tactics in the book, but they all essentially serve the strategy that Holiday calls, “trading up the chain.” And trading up the chain is something you can do, even without lying.
Here’s how it works: Get coverage on smaller outlets. Those stories then get covered on mid-level outlets. Finally, major outlets pick up stories from the mid-level outlets.
- Smaller outlets can be individual blogs, social media, or local websites that cover a neighborhood or scene.
- Mid-level outlets are blogs of newspapers or local television stations. They can also be “sister sites” of bigger outlets, so they might be affiliated with Newsweek, or CBS.
- Major outlets are the big ones, like the New York Times, CNN, or The Today Show.
It’s easy to get coverage on the small outlets
It’s easy to get coverage on smaller outlets, Holiday says. If there’s a bigger outlet on which you want coverage, review stories for patterns. What are the stories about? Is there a smaller outlet where stories consistently show up before stories on the bigger outlet?
The smaller the outlet, the less they fact-check
Holiday says the smaller an outlet is, the less they fact check. This is where the lying comes in. Holiday confesses to creating fake email accounts to send tips to bloggers, leaking fake internal memos, and having his assistant pose as him over email and even over the phone.
You don’t even have to start with the small outlets. Holiday says he successfully “conned” reporters from Reuter’s, MSNBC, CBS, ABC, The Today Show, and the New York Times. Using HARO, or “Help a Reporter Out” – which is an email list reporters use to find story sources – he found journalists who were looking for experts on various subjects.
Holiday isn’t an expert on, say, vinyl record collecting, but these reporters were presumably on deadlines, and so not inclined to fact check. Holiday says he did it as a stunt to prove how ridiculous he thinks HARO is, and points out that even after he publicly embarrassed these outlets, they continue to use the service.
One of my favorite observations from the book is that the fuzziness of truth in the media is like the subprime mortgage crisis. During the subprime mortgage crisis, banks sold loans to other banks, who sold those to other banks. These loans were rated by ratings agencies that were overwhelmed, and driven by conflicts of interest.
One example of false information in the media Holiday seized upon was when a journalist misinterpreted the Wikipedia page of Holiday’s client, Tucker Max. Holiday had written Max’s page to show that his book had been on the New York Times best-seller list for some period of time in each of three consecutive years. The journalist apparently read that, then wrote a story saying Max’s book had been on the best-seller list for three years. That was wrong, but Holiday ran with it, updating the Wikipedia page to say Max’s book had, indeed, been on the list for three years, citing the incorrect article as proof. (The Wikipedia page has since been corrected.)
Like the subprime mortgage crisis, in the news media, overwhelmed and conflicted reporters write stories, which are then picked up by other overwhelmed and conflicted reporters. In Balaji Srinivasan’s second appearance on the Tim Ferriss show, which I summarized on episode 274, he describes how a different kind of chain could ensure verifiable truth gets traded up the chain – in this case, a blockchain.
By getting a story into one outlet, then “trading up the chain” to get it covered in another, you’re creating a “pseudo-event.” If you remember my summary of The Image on episode 257, author Daniel J. Boorstin describes pseudo-events as fake events that are deliberately placed in the news, so that they become real.
Holiday created a lot of pseudo-events for Max when his movie based upon his book, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell, was debuting. He bought ads in newspapers around the country, then sent anonymous complaints to the newspapers, leaking those complaints to blogs, to get coverage. He notified college LGBT and women’s rights groups of screenings, so they would protest at theaters and the nightly news would cover it. He bought a billboard, defaced it, and reported it to journalists to get news coverage.
It seems almost certain that the Russian Internet Research Agency read Holiday’s book. They spent many years – and probably still are – hacking public opinion in the U.S. and in other countries, creating Facebook pages for various causes, “astroturfing” those pages with activity from fake profiles, then using that influence make real-life events happen. For example, in 2016 they organized opposing protests – one through the Facebook group, “Heart of Texas,” the other for “United Muslims of America” – at the same time, on the same day, across the street from each other.
Trading sensationalism up the chain for free advertising
Holiday says his “leveraged advertising strategy” of running sensational ads for American Apparel just to get news coverage was responsible for 50% growth in online sales in three years with “a miniscule ad budget.”
He says he deliberately designed ads that would inspire outrage: dressing up kids like adults, putting clothes on dogs, or writing ad copy that didn’t make sense.
When he couldn’t use some promotional Halloween costume photos, because of copyright concerns, he had one of his employees leak them to Gawker and Jezebel, where they were covered in an article that got ninety-thousand views.
He ran ads on small websites, featuring porn actress Sasha Grey, completely nude. The ads were covered by Nerve, Buzzfeed, Fast Company, Jezebel, and more. All this coverage for just $1,200 in ads (though it’s not clear how much he paid Grey).
He says, “my strategy has always been: If I want to be written about, I do things they have to write about.” This is how, according to Holiday, Donald Trump got $4.6 billion of free publicity during his presidential campaign.
Pseudo-events for reputational damage control
Because of the way the media works, Holiday says if a client of his is in trouble, the best strategy is to create what’s essentially a pseudo-event.
A major newspaper wrote a hit piece on a client of Holiday’s. The journalist who wrote the hit piece was also running a hate blog about the client’s company on the side.
The client complained to the journalist’s editor, but they didn’t seem to care. So, Holiday advised his client to write an internal memo to his company, then forward that memo to a competing outlet, which published an article with the memo. The memo was apparently quite damning, because the original newspaper had no choice but to respond.
Because bloggers aren’t incentivized to care about the truth, and readers are attracted to drama, Holiday says there’s no point in trying to correct something that’s been said about you in the media. If you want to try, he says, “be prepared to have to be an obsequious douche. You’ve got to flatter bloggers into thinking that somehow the mistake wasn’t their fault.”
Ways of using these tactics that are less…gross
I personally can’t judge Holiday for using these tactics. The medium is the message; as one of Holiday’s chapters proclaims, “everyone else is doing it”; and there’s no denying that Holiday is good at getting coverage for himself and his clients. But, I’m probably not the only one uncomfortable with impersonating others and lying to get coverage. You can still learn a lot from Trust Me, I’m Lying.
Trade up the chain
Trading up the chain is a completely legitimate tactic. If you want coverage somewhere, pay attention to where they get their story ideas, and what stories they like to cover.
This applies to influencers, too. I no longer interview people on this podcast, but I get so many pitches that are totally irrelevant. You have a better chance of, say, getting interviewed on a podcast, if you tailor your pitch to the target show. And if you get coverage from a micro-influencer that influences a bigger influencer, you might move up the chain.
While anger gets a lot of attention, you don’t have to be negative in your marketing. You can instead be remarkable – what Seth Godin calls a Purple Cow.
I love the ridiculous book titles of author Chuck Tingle. Are you ready for this? How could you not laugh when you hear the title, Domald Tromp Pounded in the Butt By the Handsome Russian T-Rex Who Also Peed On His Butt And Then Blackmailed Him With the Videos Of His Butt Getting Peed On. Even if you don’t buy one of his books, his titles are attention-grabbing and spread.
Bread Face Blog makes a living smashing bread with her face. It’s so absurd, it has to attract attention. The Instagram algorithm sees that attention, and gets her videos in front of more people. The New York Times had to write about her – how could they not?
Create a message for the medium
If the medium is the message, create a message for the medium. Whatever you’re creating, think about how it spreads through media, whether that’s social media, traditional media, or word-of-mouth.
Lately, I’ve been seeing how people on Instagram share highlights of quotes in books. It makes sense to have larger pull quotes in my next book, so they have something pretty to take a picture of.
Have you been to a restaurant or event where there’s a decorated nook specifically for taking photos and sharing them on social media? Not an accident.
While researching Times Square ad space for my own publicity stunt I’m working on, I saw one fact sheet point out that Times Square was “the third-most Instagrammed location in the world.” Point being if you put up an ad there, lots of people bragging to their friends about their trips to New York will spread your ad for you.
When I write a title of a book, I ask myself if it passes the “cocktail party test.” How would it feel to tell someone at a cocktail party you’re reading a book by this title? Proud and strong? Good. Embarrassed or weak? Bad.
Mind Management, Not Time Management is what I call a “turnkey title.” The title alone makes a statement you can use, without reading the book. It helps make it memorable, so it spreads.
Today’s media is increasingly participatory. People are not just consumers of media, but also makers of media. By creating pseudo-events, you can get more out of the media you create.
I recently saw a cool video on TikTok, showing the process of making a video that showed the process of making a pizza. I know, meta, right?
It’s a pseudo-event. The video of them making pizza was made for the media. The video of them making the video making pizza made me think they’re really good cinematographers. Of course, they teased the original video at the end of the cinematography video, and I had to go watch it.
Many readers of the books I write also write books. So, my KDP income reports are essentially pseudo-events. One reason they exist is, I have a business writing books for people who write books, and they show that I know how to run a business writing books. They attract the attention of people who will like my books.
Trust Me, I’m Lying is a must-read for anyone doing anything with media. But be careful what you do with these tactics. I know I’ve heard Tucker Max lament the reputation he’s gained as a result of the tactics in the book. I’ve also heard Max say the same for Holiday – that maybe it wasn’t such a good idea to write a book that says he’s a liar right in the title. As Holiday warns, “if you chase the kind of attention I chased, and use the tactics I’ve used, there will be blowback.”
There’s your Trust Me, I’m Lying book summary
Not all of the book is tactics. Much of it is more media commentary, with some media history sprinkled in, and some airing of grievances Holiday has with various journalists and media outlets.
Despite the damage Holiday may have done to his reputation by writing Trust Me, I’m Lying, I really appreciate the book, and it took guts to confess to the things he did in the book. It’s on my list of best media books.
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