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July 27, 2012 8:24 pm
Last year, the ultra-powerful website The Huffington Post ran a haunting slideshow depicting urban decay in Detroit. It was an online hit: some 25,000 people posted a “like” verdict on Facebook and 4,000 placed comments online.
No surprise there, perhaps. Not only were the photos stunning but they also tapped into one of the great themes – and anxieties – of modern America: industrial decline. As such, they were perfect “economic disaster porn”, as some pundits like to say.
But there is a catch. A couple of years earlier, some equally brilliant pictures of Detroit’s decline were also displayed on Magnum Photos’ website. But while those ones displayed the haunting faces of the city’s inhabitants, they caused no ripples at all, receiving just 21 comments in three years, tantamount to media death.
Does this difference matter? If you believe Ryan Holiday, a 25-year-old blogger-cum-spin doctor, the answer is an emphatic “yes”. Last week, Holiday published the first book that sets out to blow the whistle on all the darkest arts of spinning the social media, under the catchy title Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator.
By any standards, this is an astonishing, disturbing book. Holiday has worked for several years as a self-proclaimed media manipulator, running campaigns for companies such as American Apparel. He is now intent on revealing all the tricks that his ilk use to influence – if not control – us via the social media. Unsurprisingly, many of these stories are chilling. He describes, for example, how media manipulators and a hungry blogosphere routinely pervert the political process, creating the kind of gimmicks seen in the Republican presidential nomination race earlier this year (remember Herman Cain, Michele Bachmann and so on?). The stories of his antics in the celebrity world are also shocking (one particularly memorable scene describes how Holiday placed posters in Los Angeles, deliberately defaced them and then sent indignant posts to blogs about the “vandalism” under false names to get a storm of publicity for his friend, the author Tucker Max).
While the tale of the Detroit slideshow looks pretty innocuous in comparison, it is highly revealing. One reason why The Huffington Post slideshow did so well relative to Magnum, Holiday argues, is that the blog is extremely popular: readers typically “spread” articles to their friends (ie copy them), giving great power to the crowd. But the other issue is more subtle. Readers were willing to “spread” the Huffington Post photos because they did not contain any distressing pictures of real people, but just used artistic shots of decaying buildings, Holiday says. “The photos that spread … are deliberately devoid of human life … seeing the homeless and drug addicts and starving and dying animals would take away all the fun. It would make the viewers feel uncomfortable and unsettling images are not conducive to sharing.”
The Magnum photos, by contrast, showed real – suffering – people, and as such were more challenging, albeit more truthful. “The economics of the web make it impossible to portray the complex situation in Detroit accurately,” Holiday adds. “Simple narratives like the haunting ruins of a city spread and live, while complicated ones like a city filled with real people who desperately need help don’t.” Or to put it another way, “real” life is not usually popular with the crowd if it is too subtle, complex or real; unreal stories are what tend to spread.
Now, if you want to be optimistic, you might as well hope this does not matter. After all, unreal, stereotypical gossip exists in any culture (many years ago, when I worked as an anthropologist, I used to live in poor, central Asian villages, and found those societies as addicted to crazy rumours as any 21st-century cyber-addict today).
Moreover, this is not the first point in history when mob rule has driven the media. In the 19th century, when American papers started marketing themselves on the street for the first time, the so-called “yellow press” was as sensational as the social media today – and as easily manipulated. However, that earlier wild phase of journalism later self-corrected, to a degree, when papers such as the New York Times started to sell themselves as credible alternative sources of news as the public got tired of excessive drama.
Perhaps that counter-reaction will happen again; after all, social media is still a young phenomenon. And Holiday says a key reason he wrote this book is that he hopes to start an outcry about media manipulation – and thus another backlash. But what makes 2012 different from 1912 is that not only can news now spread with stunning speed, but corporate power is better organised than ever before. The more that modern society becomes addicted to quick-fix information and instant media gratification, the greater the risk that a new generation grows up with very different ideas about what is “real”. That may not matter (much) for Detroit; but it has dangerous consequences for politics as a whole. Particularly when the US is facing so many profound economic challenges – and a potentially crucial (and manipulated) set of election campaigns.
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