Trust Me I'm Lying


As much as social media can be a pariah, it also has a flip side. I learned of “Trust Me I’m Lying” by Ryan Holiday from a Facebook post by Emily Young, a fellow creative who has started up a couple of new storefront businesses, Dog Ear Books and Garage Arcade.

With all the frustration I have had with the viral and insane news machine. I was keen to hear from a whistleblower so I could learn the red flags to look for as I sift through the overwhelming content vying for attention in my digital world.

It is really no surprise to read about how the current blogosphere can so easily be corrupted. Thought what is alarming is that this manipulated media has become so dominant in our society as a whole that its false narrative is what feeds the larger established media outlets. Which if I spell it out for you here… what you are fed online and in the media has very high odds to be crafted for someone’s gain. Most of what you read is there to coerce you into buying, believing or criticizing for their benefit.

We should be questioning everything we read. When the news is decided not by what is important but what people are clicking (which is easy to manipulate) and breaking news (incomplete content), you are no longer reading what is ‘reality’.

“The media and public are supposed to be on the same side. The media, when it’s functioning properly, protects the public against marketers and their ceaseless attempts to trick people into buying things….that is not how it is today….Marketers and the media…[are] on the same team….because the content you get has been dressed up and fed to you as news.” (p. 194)

I encourage you to give the book a read for yourself, but I am offering my own take on the red flags below. I have also referenced the page numbers where I got the information and quotes so you can easily verify my own review of the book.

Red Flag No. 1: Is the article linking to another media source’s report and not verifying their 'source'?

This trend is based on a journalistic ‘link economy’ that before the internet most media establishments would verify their stories before publishing so the there was a ‘delegation of trust'.

“The link economy is designed to confirm and support, not to question or correct.” (p. 152)

Because the new digital biosphere doesn't verify facts and instead depends on this link economy to share content that is more likely to encourage clicks and share they focus on what everyone is talking about it. Is the story viral? And let’s stake the obvious, viral does not mean verified. (What is missing is the technology to issue alerts that trackback corrupted articles by false sources.)

“The news has always been riddled with errors, because it is self-referential instead of self-critical.” (p. 155)

A verified style of journalism would mimic science where every person is responsible for their work. Where they question the work of everyone else and motivates them to be extra careful and honest. Yes, this process does cost more in time and investment, but let’s get real, FREE is never free, it will always cost you something. (my summary of p. 156)

Red Flag No. 2: Does the article get your back up? Are you outraged and offended?

Outrage does not mean informed. Stories that are written to get a society that has such a short attention span to read anything they need to ingratiate our emotional brains. As Mark Manson mentioned in his book EIF:ABAH, the emotional side of our brain is the engine behind our actions, and the more we distract our thinking side which is supposed to steer our attention, then the emotional brain takes more control.

“The best way to make your critics work for you (in media) is to make them irrationally angry.”

This was a pretty big aha moment for me as I read the book. I’m not a fan of DT, but the phrase “Fake News” he has coined has some basis on truth. But when you think of it, he played the fake news playbook by pointing the finger at legitimate news organizations in order to turn the facts against them. Wow.

This confessional is a playbook for the ‘business of news’. So you need to ask yourself, “Who owns the media company and what are their ties and interests?” and you need to ask this for EVERY single story that comes out at you. In fact, if you want to be media savvy then you need to take on the effort to do your own research for each headline if it matters to you. In fact, if the headline enrages you, well even more of a reason to stop, breathe, and start looking for sources that you trust and don’t have a vested interested in clicks and page views.

It’s time to start investing in subscriptions to news organizations so they can be funded by the public to report based on their interests, not some shareholders.

Everything I have read in this book is shocking and at the same time not surprising. There is a general feeling with our society that we are aware we are being manipulated, but if it makes us feel good about ourselves then what is the harm? It’s called being lazy and let’s be honest, a human response. So if we understand this, maybe we can push to be better humans and start with ourselves by stopping the flow of viral untruths that feel good to share.

Red Flag No. 3: The onus is on the subject of an article to prove their innocence to every accusation. Viral extortion.

Unlike the justice system where a defendant is presumed innocent before guilty. The media is free to presume guilt and the innocent has to defend their innocence. Why is it the subject’s job to do the writers job? The world of PR is less about promoting and more about managing the negative press. Social media is now a factor in corporations financial reports. Seriously?

Red Flag No. 4: Extensive use of buzz-words.

Beware of the following examples of phrases used in an article/post: "We’re hearing...; I wonder...; Possibly...; Lots of buzz that...; Sites are reporting...; Could...; Would...; Should...; and so on.” (p. 170) These types of posts are speculating over-reporting. Just reading examples gets my heart rate up, how about you? This type of journalism is all about risking being wrong in order to be ‘first’.

Red Flag No. 5: Extreme Headlines

“…the more unbelievable headlines readers are exposed to, the more it warps their compass-making the real seem fake and the fake seem real. The more extreme a headline, the longer participants spend processing it, and the more likely they are to believe it. The more times an unbelievable claim is seen, the more likely they are to believe it.” (p. 185)

Red. Flag No. 6: When humour/snark is used as a response to any claim.

Discussing issues fairly would take time and actual thought which doesn’t work for the current digital blog world. They work better in click-friendly, cheap and fast which is where humour is the easier option. Snarking is has been quoted to be the cultural version of vandalism. Snark targets anyone being honest, earnest and vulnerable.

The people who gain from snark are those with nothing to lose and all those we wish would go away who only gain from being constantly talked about no matter what is said. (Hmmm I can think of many ‘reality' tv shows and stars under this umbrella.)

“Snark….[is] a defence mechanism for writers who, having nothing to say, are absolutely terrified of being criticized or derided.” (p. 202)

What goes through your mind when you read/hear a person respond by being an ass to any kind of claim? Does their lack of concern invalidate the issue?

“Snark makes the speaker feel a strength they know deep down they do not possess.” (p. 202)

Snark is a vicious circle that can never be resolved in the public eye. There will always be a camp on either side and feeding into it only validates the original claim regardless if it was true or not.

Red Flag No. 7: Content that creates an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ dialogue.

Blogs are the digital blood sport that makes readers feel better about themselves by hurting others. We all are aware of the dangers of pitting ‘us’ against ‘them’. No one ever will win and because of that, you eliminate any opportunity for collaboration and engaging community.

For me personally, I think of the blatant right versus left viewpoints. I did a CreativeMornings talk on this exact topic. We keep focusing on our differences when what we should be doing is focusing on our similarities like family, love, community, hope, a good economy, freedom.

Instead of sharing some random post, why don’t you instead share your own story? If we could hear more about what each person’s experiences are, it allows the opportunity to be heard and understood. IF there is anything this book has spelt out, is 99% of the media out there is contrived and strategized to skew perceptions, never to encourage dialogue.

So stop the machine in its tracks and simply stop sharing blogs and posts. Maybe if we used social media as it was intended, for the individual to be heard, we can encourage more critical reading instead of blatant copying.

Red Flag No. 8: Headlines are about the unexpected.

Anything newsworthy is what is interesting to talk about. If it’s been discussed then it isn’t newsworthy. Tell this to anyone who has lost a family member tragically. Tell them their loss is old news. Don’t know about you, but another story about another hurricane has less and less impact the more you hear about it. But to those it affected, it’s their lives and kinda a big deal. But hey, not newsworthy anymore.

“[The news] is just content that has successfully navigated the media filters.” (p. 217)

The media seems to have become a filter with a job to limit what information is seen by the public. I mean come on, the amount of content in the world is unlimited, but you can sit down with your coffee and digest that every morning, am I right? It seems like it’s up to you to choose the medium that provides you with the filters that matter to you. Individuals need to step up their game and question content provided to them for FREE. If it isn’t costing you money, it’s costing you your time and attention and ultimately leading you to push some kind of unspoken agenda.

The idea that if the news is important then it will ‘find’ you, that is naive and doesn’t acknowledge that what does "find you" is the worst kind of news.

Ryan lists out a summary and explanation of the following tips on p. 224 that starts with "When you see…"

  • We’re hearing a story...

  • We’ll have more details as the story develops...

  • Sources tell us...

  • Said in a press release...

  • According to a report by...

  • We’ve reached out to so-and-so for comment...

  • "which means" or "meaning that" or "will result in"

  • a friend comments “I was reading that…"

“Our facts aren’t fact, they are opinions dressed up like facts. Our opinions aren’t opinions; they are emotions that feel like opinions. Our information isn’t information; its just hastily assembled symbols.” (p. 228)

And there we have my synopsis of this mind-blowing book. In the end, it has encouraged me to question everything and to instead search out my own news instead of being fed whatever is served up.

Did you hear about the Gates Foundation work that has done amazing developments in sanitation? No? Well, it’s because it isn’t sexy.

Have you heard of Greta and her mission to get adults to start listening to scientists instead of defending policies that are changing the climate?

My favourite podcast these days is Malcolm Gladwell’s, Revisionist History. Why? He shares a story that speaks to our growth and failings in society. The more we are aware of our own limitations and leanings, the more we are prepared to account for them and call them out. I re-listened to his first podcast with my husband where he talks about our social morality. There are examples aplenty that society will take a step forward and then fall back about 10 because they felt justified because they did one good thing.

If only we could instead take a step forward and then another and push back against ancient views. I have no desire to live in any time but now.

After reading a book on teenager girls as I am fumbling through that stage with my kids. My initial views on the roles of social media feeling they are negatively impacting my girls’ social development, I read and realized that in fact, when used properly actually are a benefit to a teenagers’ growth as they find their tribe and strike out on their own. It was a hard pill to swallow, but actually reading the insight has helped me to adjust my views and parent with that in mind.

Gosh, I could go on with random thoughts and views, but I at least hope that I have informed and sparked ideas and insights in how you go forward meandering through the world media landscape.

Of course you can always choose to avoid it and focus on your own life, but as they say, “Staying silent is a form of permission.”