Summary

In his book Trust Me, I’m Lying, Ryan Holiday reveals to his readers how media manipulation works. With shame and contrition he confesses how his participation in that deceptive world led to the writing of this book. His opening lines of the introduction are:

If you were being kind you would say that 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 am paid to deceive. My job is to lie to the media so they can lie to you. I cheat, bribe, and connive for best-selling authors and billion-dollar brands, and abuse my understanding of the internet to do so.” 

Holiday then shares a story about one of his many unscrupulous marketing ploys. One late night he snuck out to vandalize one of his own billboards that he paid for out of his own pocket. He coaxed his girlfriend to be the driver of his getaway car. He snapped a picture of the billboard out of his passenger window as though he had just innocently driven by and spotted it from the road. He pasted a 2ft long sticker across the billboard implying that his friend (Tucker Max) “deserved to have his **** [expletive for male genitalia] caught in a trap with sharp metal hooks.” As soon as he arrived home he sent off emails to two major blogs using a fake name. He ended the messages with “Good to know that Los Angeles hates Tucker Max too!” and attached the photos. One blogger wrote back “You’re not messing with me are you?” to which he replied “No. Trust me, I’m not lying.” 

All of this was part of his deliberately provocative marketing plan to help promote the indie-film I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell. Holiday was asked to create some controversy around his friend’s new movie, and this stunt accomplished exactly that. Buzz circulated, and in roughly two weeks with almost no budget, hundreds of college students showed up to protest the film, which hijacked the coverage from many local news outlets that unwittingly gave them the attention they desired. Eventually larger outlets like Fox News, the NY Post, the Chicago Tribune, and the Washington Post all ran stories on the film as well. Ticket sales were slow at first, but after the media storm spread, the film went on to become a successful cult classic.

This story illustrated how the media system (which is largely hidden from our view) works. It shows that the news is created and driven by marketers, and almost nobody does anything to expose it. The entire firestorm around that film was purposefully fabricated. Holiday bought and designed the advertisements that he placed around the country, and then promptly called and left anonymous complaints about them. He posted anonymous comments on social media sites, and even alerted college LGBT and Women’s Rights groups and baited them into protesting the film, knowing the nightly news would cover it. Holiday even photoshopped fake, inflammatory ads that were never actually circulated, and sent them to gossip sites which gleefully ran the stories.

Holiday’s job at the time was Director of Marketing for American Apparel, which became known for their controversial ads and unconventional business practices. Beyond that he orchestrated similar deceptions for other high profile authors and entrepreneurs. Holiday admits “I create and shape the news for them.” What starts as a simple hustle eventually works its way up the media food chain until they achieve high profile coverage that manipulates people into believing that all the fabricated controversy is in fact real. He explains how the economics of the internet are “exploited to change public perception, and sell products.”  

Holiday recalls how he was sucked into the media underworld, getting hit after hit, propagating more and more lies for his clients to do so. To hear him tell the story, it sounded almost like a druggie describing their descent into the throws of a new substance addiction. Soon it became difficult for him to go about his daily life knowing what he knew about how media manipulation works. He kept up the charade as long as he could until he began to see himself as a giant con-man, and forced himself to walk away.

He admits that life after being in the world of media manipulation is not easy. He is skeptical of nearly everything he reads or sees. He knows how the system works and is perpetually trying to figure out who is trying to manipulate him and how. He quotes the editor of a large blog who was commenting on media manipulation, saying “It’s all professional wrestling.” He understands how anyone reading this book will get to the end hating what they now know as the curtain has been pulled back. Some readers may feel upset for him “ruining” their favorite websites as he exposes the people behind those sites as the charlatans and pompous frauds that they are. But as he says “it is a world of many hustlers, and you are the mark.” 

Unlike traditional business books, this one is split into two parts. The first part illustrates how blogs matter and why. Then he explains how they can be manipulated and end up driving the news cycle. In the second part he describes the fallout of this approach, and the unfortunate consequences for unsuspecting people like you and I. 

Part 1

In the chapters of part 1, Holiday explains the methods used to manipulate bloggers and reporters at the highest levels, broken down into 9 simple tactics. All of these tactics expose important vulnerabilities in our current media systems. Holiday does acknowledge the risk of sharing some of these insider secrets, knowing that some will read the book as an instruction manual rather than a warning, using these tricks for their own financial gain. But he’s hopeful that exposing these tricks will diminish their effectiveness if a larger audience understands how they are being played. 

Before revealing the tactics, Holiday explains how blogs make the news. He shows how to “trade up the chain” which is essentially a secret in how to turn nothing into something in 3 way-too-easy steps. He also reveals what he calls “the blog con” which is an explanation of how publishers make money online. The nine ways to manipulate the media are listed below.

Manipulation Tactics:

  1. The Art of the Bribe
  2. Tell Them What They Want to Hear
  3. Give ‘Em What Spreads
  4. Help Them Trick Their Readers
  5. Sell Them Something They Can Sell (To Be In the News, Make News)
  6. Make It All About the Headline
  7. Kill ‘Em With Pageview Kindness
  8. Use Technology Against Itself
  9. Just Make Stuff Up (Everyone Else is Doing It)

Part 2

In the last half of the book Holiday shares some examples of what he calls “the perfect storm of how toxic blogging can be.” He then shares a list of examples of the “manipulator hall of fame.” Some of the names will likely be recognizable to many. He explains how “slacktivism is not activism” and how one should avoid the time/mind suck of online media. 

Moving on, Holiday describes how manipulators get away with the line “just passing this along” when no one is willing to own what they say. So many journalists get away with murder (figuratively speaking) using this tactic. He then introduces us to the art of battling it out online, or what he calls “cyber-warfare” along with the myth and ineffectiveness of issuing corrections.

In the closing chapters, Holiday characterizes “An Emerging 21st Century Degradation Ceremony” as the process of how blogs act as machines of mockery, shame, and punishment. And now that our eyes have been opened, he offers an invitation on how to live in the “Unreality.”

Conclusion

This was a startling read. Personally, as someone who has recently launched a new blog, it helped me see the world I am stepping into. Obviously, for those that read my initial post entitled “What’s In a Name?” you’ll recall that I am aiming to have the opposite effect of media manipulation—I’m wanting to disarm and expose the deceitful giants in our culture. 

Perhaps I’m naive and my voice will be drowned out amidst the never-ending stream of untrustworthy content flooding our newsfeeds. Or maybe not. Maybe people are waking up to the deception? By and large, I still see far too many people mindlessly swallowing whatever the corporate media giants spoon-feed them. However, I am encouraged by the growing number of people questioning what they read and hear online.

I’m not arguing that everyone needs to walk around completely jaded about our media options, but I am promoting this book in the hopes that it will urge people to start sniffing out their manipulation tactics. A posture of skeptical-squinting may well be our best approach in navigating the information minefield surrounding us. If, as Holiday says in the book, the media is “inherently a mechanism for systematically limiting what the public sees” then learning how to see through their facade is the best way forward.