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Trust Me I'm Lying by Ryan Holiday - Summary and Book Notes

Do you get angry while skimming through news headlines? Then someone succeeded in manipulating you. Published in 2012, Holiday's book is surprisingly prescient. Since then the techniques described in the book have gotten more prevalent and more effective; all the more reason to understand how they work.


Ryan Holiday knows how to manipulate the media, and he's sick of the whole thing. In Trust Me, I'm Lying, Holiday shows how easy it is to manipulate the media for marketing purposes. Using examples from his time under Tucker Max, American Apparel, and his own marketing agency, he demonstrates techniques for spreading your product or idea. He then shows how the economics of blogging undermine journalistic integrity, and create a culture of lies and toxicity. Holiday wants you to understand how the external costs of reckless journalists cause great harm to companies, individuals, and our society.

Trust Me lacks the conciseness of his later books, and feels repetitive at times. But the message Holiday wants to convey is so important that I'll still highly recommend this book.

Trust Me I'm Lying by Ryan Holiday

I recommend this book for anyone who:

  1. Incessantly reads the news
  2. Frequently gets riled up about some horrible thing so-and-so did yesterday

Do you think your news sources are trustworthy? Buy "Trust Me, I'm Lying" on Amazon, or check it out at the library. Let me know what you thought of the book.

Further Reading


Quick Summary

The following are rough notes I took while reading. These are mostly paraphrased or quoted directly from the book.

How Blogs Work

Someone pays me, I manufacture a story for them, and we trade it up the chain...until the unreal becomes real.

system... designed to trick, cajole, and steal every second of the most precious resource in the world--people's time.

What rules over the media, rules over the country.

Cable news has to fill 24 hours, but blogs have to fill an infinite amount of space

Traffic is more important (profitable) than the truth.

Trading up the chain: place a story with a small blog, which becomes the source for a larger blog, ...for larger media outlets

Cison: 89 percent of journalists reported using blogs for research

Majority of journalists admitted to knoing that their online sources were less reliable

Watch out for legacy media outlets with 'blog' sections, they do not have the same editorial guidelines even though the site looks very similar.

Create a perception that the meme already exists and all the reporter does is popularize it

frovocation - faux provocation

In journalism, the identity of anonymous sources must be shared with the editor to make sure the person is real. This doesn't happen on blogs.

Good bait - "How have you not done a story about this yet?"

Media is like an animal herd, one steer starts the stampede.

Misinformation can spread even if no one is consciously pushing or manipulating it

Blogs do everything they can to increase traffic, pageviews

I got a twitter account with more than 400,000 followers to say: "FACT: People will do anything for money" --for twenty-five dollars.

One of the quickest ways to get coverage for a product is to give it away for free to bloggers

In the pay-for-pageview model, every post is a conflict of interest.

Blogger uses Wikipedia to source something, writes the article a bit more generously, then the article is used as a source to edit Wikipedia

"If it doesn't spread, it's dead" - Henry Jenkins, MIT Media Studies Professor

"If something is a total bummer, people don't share it" - Jonah Peretti

"the most powerful predictor of virality is how much anger an article evokes" - Wharton School

Controversy can generate sales

Questions in headlines allow bloggers to get away with a false statement that no one can critisize

Getting a user to comment gerates more page-views (ad views) while they login and submit a comment

tee a blogger up with a story that will obviously generate comments

"the people who win are those who...make things the most inconvenient for you [make you click a lot]." - Richard Greenblatt

Newspaper history: Party Press, Yellow Press, Modern Press--many parallels to modern blogs

Yellow Press sold newspapers one at a time, 'One-Off'. There isn't enough exciting news, so they create news that will sell papers. Blogs have the same 'One-Off' problem.

Doing things differently is the way to great wealth

Adolph Ochs invented the subscription model, which lead to the modern press

People read an assortment of blogs, so there is little incentive to build trust

Want to know how to con bloggers? Look at media hoaxes from before your grandparents were born.

Biggest sources for traffic are usually Google, Facebook, Twitter

RSS was abandoned because it puts the users in control. Having followers who have to check back on the site generates more ad views.

It all comes down to the headline.

"People respond to and are deceived by the same things they were a hundred years ago" -Ricky Jay, Magician

The question is not "Is this headline accurate?" but "Was it clicked more than the others?"

Come up with a headline and let the blogger think they were the one who came up with it

ill-conceived metrics make bloggers do awful things

Just as TV begets talking heads, for blogs the medium is the message

The best way to get traffic is to publish as much as possible, quickly, and simply as possible.

a site has one second to make a hook

long format posts are too long for internet attention spans

The world is far too messy for everything to be expressed in less than 800 words

The world is boring, but the news is exciting

Send multiple blogs the same 'exclusive' and they'll all publish it

If you do something complicated, expect to have it simplified online

What blogs mean

Denials don't mean anything online. You can never undo what you've been accused of, even if it's false

what-ifs in a first piece become the basis for the second piece

Everyone is a victim of blogging

Sometimes only a manipulator can spot another manipulator (Study marketing/persuasion/psychology/power)

Big controveries can generate more stories (initial post, accusations, reversals...)

Victims lose jobs or are publically branded for life by the time posts are found to be fake

The best way to make your critics work for you is to make them angry

Completely side-stepping and not acknowledging any wrongdoing spreads your message (Brietbart on Sherrod)

We once naively believed that blogs would be a boon to democracy.

"If newspapers are useful in overthrowing tyrants, it is only to establish a tyranny of their own" - James Cooper

Everything you consume online has been "optimized" to make you dependent on it.

Entire companies exist to pump out genetically modified information

Staying informed makes you feel like you've taken action, even though you've done nothing.

Active social networkers are 26% more likely to give their opinions on politics off-line

A dubious accusation on a gossip blog nearly became a nongossip story on CNN

Both blogs and mainstream media are shirking their duty

Links add 'legitamacy' even if the link has nothing to do with the claim. Just placing a link somewhere makes the article seem more credible. Nobody actually clicks on links to check.

A student posted a fake quotation on Maurice Jarre's Wikipedia pages shortly after he died. The quote then was used in obituaries around the world. Wikipedia removed the quote, but it had already been used in articles.

Mistakes ripple through the news, sometimes with painful consequences.

Replication (checking sources) is expensive, but if not done the consequences are externalized

If you run a company, you need to have a social media crises plan

Give blogs special treatment or they'll attack you

indie bands now hide from the press, afraid of backlash seen agains promising 'blog-buzz' bands

A fake email posted by Endgadget dropped Apple's stock price by $4 billion

Iterative journalism is stupid and dangerous. Upside: news can get to you 20minutes faster than to the President. Downside: ruined reputations, lies spread as fact, trust in the press erodes.

"Getting it right is expensive, getting it first is cheap" - Michael Arrington, TechCrunch

Qualifiers blogs use to cover their ass: "We're hearing..."; "I wonder..."; "Possibly..."; "Lots of buzz that"; "Sites are reporting..."; etc

Updates and corrections are often placed at the bottom of a post, where no one will read them. By the time the proper facts have been established, it is too late to dislodge a now commonly held perception.

The last thing [bloggers] want to do is rewrite or get rid of a post and throw away the few minutes of work they put into it.

Suppressing one's instinct to interpret and speculate, until the totality of evidence arrives, is a skill that detectives and doctors train for years to develop. Humans are wired to do the opposite.

Viewing corrections can actually make you more likely to believe the initial incorrect claim. Cognitive rigidity.

The more times an unbelievable claim is seen, the more believable it becomes.

Humans place more trust in written things than spoken word.

Don't use reason to defend against snark.

Snarky writers don't want to be mocked, so they strike first by mocking everyone in sight.

Snark can criticize, but can't be criticized.

Snark makes culture impossible

The online media cycle is not a process for developing truth but for performing a kind of cultural catharsis. Degradation ceremonies.

The media limits information seen by the public, to that which spreads.

Our facts aren't fact, they are opinions. Our opinions aren't opinions, they are emotions. Our information isn't information, it's hastily assembled symbols.

You cannot have your news instantly and have it done well.

How to Read a Blog

When you see ... -- Read as ...

"According to a tipster" -- "trickster"
"We're hearing reports" -- "some rando tweeted"
"leaked documents" -- "fabricated documents"
"Breaking" -- "zero fact checking or editing"
"Updated" -- "No one reworked this article, just copied some shit to the bottom"
"Sources tell us" -- "Unvetted, uncorroborated sources"
"said in a press release" -- "spammed a bunch of blogs with a document"
"we've reached out to So-and-So for comment" -- "We sent an email at 4am and hit publish 2 minutes later"
any kind of interpretation -- remember they are a blogger with zero training or expertise
"I was reading that..." -- "I glanced at a headline on Facebook"

Buy "Trust Me, I'm Lying" on Amazon

See Also

Slate Star Codex on The Toxoplasma of Rage

CGP Grey - This Video Will Make You Angry