Exclusive excerpt: “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator”
Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Ryan Holiday’s new book, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, a revelatory first-hand look at what the author calls a “critical vulnerability in our media system” and his efforts to exploit it. For more, see the Daily Dot’s accompanying profile, “Media manipulator Ryan Holiday finally comes clean.”<
If you were being kind, you would say my job is in marketing and public relations, or online strategy and advertising. But that’s a polite veneer to hide the harsh truth. I am, to put it bluntly, a media manipulator—I’m paid to deceive. My job is to lie to the media so they can lie to you. I cheat, bribe, and connive for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands and abuse my understanding of the Internet to do it.
I have funneled millions of dollars to blogs through advertising. I’ve given breaking news to blogs instead of Good Morning America and, when that didn’t work, hired their family members. I have flown bloggers across the country, boosted their revenue by buying traffic, written their stories for them, fabricated elaborate ruses to capture their attention, and courted them with expensive meals and scoops. I’ve probably sent enough gift cards and T-shirts to fashion bloggers to clothe a small country. Why did I do all this? Because it was the only way. I did it to build them up as sources, sources that I could influence and direct for my clients. I used blogs to control the news.
It’s why I found myself at 2:00 a.m. one morning, at a deserted intersection in Los Angeles, dressed in all black. In my hand I had tape and some obscene stickers made at Kinko’s earlier in the afternoon. What was I doing here? I was there to deface billboards, specifically billboards I had designed and paid for. Not that I’d expected to do anything like this, but there I was, doing it. My girlfriend, coaxed into being my accomplice, was behind the wheel of the getaway car.
After I finished, we circled the block and I took photos of my work from the passenger window as if I had spotted it from the road. Across the billboards was now a two-foot-long sticker that implied that the movie’s creator—my friend, Tucker Max—deserved to have his dick caught in a trap with sharp metal hooks. Or something like that.
As soon as I got home I dashed off two emails to two major blogs. Under the fake name Evan Meyer I wrote, “I saw these on my way home last night. It was on 3rd and Crescent Heights, I think. Good to know Los Angeles hates Tucker Max too,” and attached the photos.
One blog wrote back: You’re not messing with me, are you?
No, I said. Trust me, I’m not lying.
The vandalized billboards and the coverage that my photos received were just a small part of the deliberately provocative campaign I did for the movie I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. My friend Tucker had asked me to create some controversy around the movie, which was based on his bestselling book, and I did—somewhat effortlessly, it turns out. It is one of many campaigns I have done in my career, and by no means an unusual one. But it illustrates a part of the media system that is hidden from your view: how the news is created and driven by marketers, and that no one does anything to stop it.
In under two weeks, and with no budget, thousands of college students protested the movie on their campuses nationwide, angry citizens vandalized our billboards in multiple neighborhoods, FoxNews.com ran a front-page story about the backlash, Page Six of the New York Post made their first of many mentions of Tucker, and the Chicago Transit Authority banned and stripped the movie’s advertisements from their buses. To cap it all off, two different editorials railing against the film ran in the Washington Post and Chicago Tribune the week it was released. The outrage about Tucker was great enough that a few years later, it was written into the popular television show Portlandia on IFC.
I guess it is safe to admit now that the entire firestorm was, essentially, fake.
I designed the advertisements, which I bought and placed around the country, and then promptly called and left anonymous complaints about them (and leaked copies of my complaints to blogs for support). I alerted college LGBT and women’s rights groups to screenings in their area and baited them to protest our offensive movie at the theater, knowing that the nightly news would cover it. I started a boycott group on Facebook. I orchestrated fake tweets and posted fake comments to articles online. I even won a contest for being the first one to send in a picture of a defaced ad in Chicago (thanks for the free T-shirt, Chicago RedEye. Oh, also, that photo was from New York). I manufactured preposterous stories about Tucker’s behavior on and off the movie set and reported them to gossip websites, which gleefully repeated them. I paid for anti-woman ads on feminist websites and anti-religion ads on Christian websites, knowing each would write about it. Sometimes I just Photoshopped ads onto screenshots of websites and got coverage for controversial ads that never actually ran. The loop became final when, for the first time in history, I put out a press release to answer my own manufactured criticism: Tucker Max Responds to CTA decision: “Blow Me,” the headline read.
Hello, shitstorm of press. Hello, number one on the New York Times bestseller list.
I pulled this off with no connections, no money, and no footsteps to follow. But because of the way that blogging is structured—from the way bloggers are paid by the pageview to the way blog posts must be written to catch the reader’s attention—this was all very easy to do. The system eats up the kind of material I produce. So as the manufactured storm I created played itself out in the press, real people started believing it, and it became true.
My full-time job then and now is director of marketing for American Apparel, a clothing company known for its provocative imagery and unconventional business practices. But I orchestrate these deceptions for other high-profile clients as well, from authors who sell millions of books to entrepreneurs worth hundreds of millions of dollars. I create and shape the news for them.
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.
*By “real” I mean that people believe it and act on it. I am saying that the infrastructure of the Internet can be used against itself to turn a manufactured piece of nonsense into widespread outrage and then action. It happens every day. Every single day.
Now, I was hardly a wide-eyed kid when I left school to do this kind of PR full time. I’d seen enough in the edit wars of Wikipedia and the politics of power users in social media to know that something questionable was going on behind the scenes. Half of me knew all this but another part of me remained a believer. I had my choice of projects, and I only worked on what I believed in (and yes, that included American Apparel and Tucker Max). But I got sucked into the media underworld, getting hit after publicity hit for my clients and propagating more and more lies to do so. I struggled to keep these parts of me separate as I began to understand the media environment I was working in, and that there was something more than a little off about it.
It worked until it stopped working for me. Though I wish I could pinpoint the moment when it all fell apart, when I realized that the whole thing was a giant con, I can’t. All I know is that, eventually, I did.
I studied the economics and the ecology of online media deeply in the pursuit of my craft. I wanted to understand not just how but why it worked—from the technology down to the personalities of the people who use it. As an insider with access I saw things that academics and gurus and many bloggers themselves will never see. Publishers liked to talk to me, because I controlled multimillion-dollar online advertising budgets, and they were often shockingly honest.
I began to make connections among these pieces of information and see patterns in history. In books decades out of print I saw criticism of media loopholes that had now reopened. I watched as basic psychological precepts were violated or ignored by bloggers as they reported the “news.” Having seen that much of the edifice of online publishing was based on faulty assumptions and self-serving logic, I learned that I could outsmart it. This knowledge both scared and emboldened me at the same time. I confess, I turned around and used this knowledge against the public interest, and for my own gain.
An obscure item I found in the course of my research stopped me cold. It was a mention of a 1913 editorial cartoon published in the long since defunct Leslie’s Illustrated Weekly Newspaper. The cartoon, it said, showed a businessman throwing coins into the mouth of a giant fang-bared monster of many arms which stood menacingly in front of him. Each of its tentacle-like arms, which were destroying the city around it, was tattooed with the words like: “Cultivating Hate,” “Distorting Facts,” and “Slush to Inflame.” The man is an advertiser and the mouth belongs to the malicious yellow press that needs his money to survive. Underneath is a caption: The Fool Who Feeds The Monster.
I knew I had to find this century-old drawing, though I wasn’t sure why. As I rode the escalator through the glass canyon of the atrium and into the bowels of the central branch of the Los Angeles Public Library to search for it, it struck me that I wasn’t just looking for some rare old newspaper. I was looking for myself. I knew who that fool was. He was me.
In addiction circles, those in recovery also use the image of the monster as a warning. They tell the story of a man who found a package on his porch. Inside was a little monster, but it was cute, like a puppy. He kept it and raised it. The more he fed it, the bigger it got and the more it needed to be fed. He ignored his worries as it grew bigger, more intimidating, demanding, and unpredictable, until one day, as he was playing with it, the monster attacked and nearly killed him. The realization that the situation was more than he could handle came too late—the man was no longer in control. The monster had a life of its own.
The story of the monster is a lot like my story. Except my story is not about drugs or the yellow press but of a bigger and much more modern monster—my monster is the brave new world of new media—one that I often fed and thought I controlled. I lived high and well in that world, and I believed in it until it no longer looked the same to me. Many things went down. I’m not sure where my responsibility for them begins or ends, but I am ready to talk about what happened.
I created false perceptions through blogs, which led to bad conclusions and wrong decisions—real decisions in the real world that had consequences for real people. Phrases like “known rapist” began to follow what were once playfully encouraged rumors of bad or shocking behavior designed to get blog publicity for clients. Friends were ruined and broken. Gradually I began to notice work just like mine appearing everywhere, and no one catching on to it or repairing the damage. Stocks took major hits, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars, on news from the same unreliable sources I’d often trick with fake stories.
In 2008, a Gawker blogger published emails stolen from my inbox by someone else trying to intimidate a client through the media. It was a humiliating and awful experience. But with some distance I now understand that Gawker had little choice about the role they played in the matter. I know that I was as much a part of the problem as they were.
I remember one day mentioning some scandal during a dinner conversation, one that I knew was probably fake, probably a scam. I did it because it was too interesting not to pass along. I was lost in the same unreality I’d forced on other people. I found that not only did I not know what was real anymore, but that I no longer cared. To borrow from Budd Schulberg’s description of a media manipulator in his classic novel The Harder They Fall, I was “indulging myself in the illusions that we can deal in filth without becoming the thing we touch.” I no longer have those illusions.
Winston Churchill wrote of the appeasers of his age that “each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last.” I was even more delusional. I thought I could skip being devoured entirely. It would never turn on me. I was in control. I was the expert. But I was wrong.