I Tried to Expose Russia’s Media Manipulation Playbook in 2012 and Nobody Listened

(L to R) Colin Stretch, general counsel at Facebook, Sean Edgett, acting general counsel at Twitter, and Richard Salgado, director of law enforcement and information security at Google, testify during a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism hearing titled ‘Extremist Content and Russian Disinformation Online’ on Capitol Hill, October 31, 2017 in Washington, DC. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

It’s been interesting for me to watch the last several months of revelations that Russia has interfered in the U.S. elections on a massive scale: Purchasing Facebook ads to support divisive articles and memes. Spreading more than 80,000 fake news posts which reached some 126 million people. Creating over 36,000 Twitter accounts and 1.4 million tweets. Posting over 1,100 videos on YouTube. Just a few weeks ago, Recode revealed that some of the most read news publications in the country, including The Washington Post, Miami Herald, Vox, and BuzzFeed, had all cited tweets from fake accounts from Russia.

And let’s not even get into any of the alleged machinations of the Trump campaign and the provocateurs of the alt-right who have managed to get literally billions of dollars of free publicity trolling, tricking and inflaming the press into sharing their message (messages, coincidentally that often mirrored narratives which began on Russian sites).

I say it has been interesting for me to watch because I know exactly how to do what these manipulators have been doing. In fact, I had not only helped invent some of these tactics, but I had been loudly warning about them for years.

By 2011, it had become increasingly clear to me that there were massive vulnerabilities in the media system. Having represented a number of deliberately controversial and provocative clients, I had learned that in a largely pageview-driven media system it was shockingly easy to tweak reporters for one’s personal gain. It was possible to create fake stories with simple “leaks” or get free coverage with a well-placed advertisement or by sending over some swag. You could use sockpuppets and fake comments and bot accounts to create the appearance of a groundswell of support. You could put out fake releases and spread rumors almost more easily than the truth. If you were OK with controversy, you could piss off one group for the benefit of another, you could generate faux-outrage to get coverage you otherwise couldn’t have gotten. Just about anything—from a tweet to a reddit post to an edit to a Wikipedia page—could become the source for a story that might soon enough be national, or international news.

I saw all this and I did a lot of it—and my mostly harmless clients did well because of it. As the fun wore off, however, I started to think: What if someone with worse intentions did some of these things? What if someone trying to sell something other than books or clothes used these tactics?

I found that I did not like the answer and so I wrote a book called Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, which revealed in no uncertain terms exactly how all these tactics work. I showed how I had personally created fake controversies, how it was possible to drive traffic to polarizing stories exactly as Russia would do years later, how I’d been quoted as a fake expert everywhere from the New York Times to ABC News. I talked about how deliberate leaks and pseudo-exclusives can be used to create Trumped up stories (another Russian tactic used to get reporters to go after Hillary Clinton). I showed how I had traded fake news up the chain and in turn seen fake rumors traded unintentionally up the chain by a media system that lacked necessary checks and balances (in fact, Russia’s troll factories had bloggers on one floor and journalists on another referencing the “stories” their colleagues were creating). I said very, very clearly in the introduction why I was writing about this, that I would be revealing “the methods used to manipulate bloggers and reporters at the highest levels…Hopefully, once in the open they’ll no longer work as well.”

Perhaps I was naive, but I thought this would, you know, work. It would be a wake up call to the media and to the public. I thought if I explained the methods that soon enough they would not work at all. Certainly, if I had been a computer hacker and had written a book about weaknesses in the banking system, I’d expect that the banking system would respond to the exposé by fixing its obvious problems (sometimes banks even pay hackers rewards for doing this). I’d expect the public to demand this reform as well. While I would love to say that the press—a profession that purports to embrace and venerate truth, even uncomfortable truths—responded in such a way, I cannot.

In fact, the response to my revelations was overwhelmingly negative. I was called a liar and a lone bad actor. My motives were questioned and my claims were dismissed as stupid. And that was the nice criticism! Reporters told me I was full of shit, that I was a “douchebag,” a “sociopath,” “known-fraud,” a “lying jerk,” a “out and out phoney” and a “troll” too many times to count. Gawker put me in their list of that year’s least important writers of the year and called me “a lying dick.” I was accosted after one of my talks by an editor from The Economist and The Wall Street Journal who accused me of slandering the good work of his colleagues. Poynter, which is supposed to be a watchdog for the media industry, dismissed the entire point I was making about how the sausage was made, asking “Are you interested in hearing about the sausage from the guy who keeps dropping mouse feces into the grinder?”

The PR and marketing bloggers were just as bad. One blog accused me of “throwing shit” and another influential PR writer claimed I was “hurting an entire industry.” Scott Monty, then the head of social media at Ford, posted a picture of my book in his trash can. Peter Shankman, the founder of Help A Reporter Out asked at the time in a headline, “Can One Idiot Ruin it for Everyone?”

Yes, that was precisely the point. I was trying to ruin it for everyone! Because the system had become a rotting, stinking mess—one worse than anyone wanted to admit—and I wanted to put some sunshine on it.

It has always struck me as strange how poorly the media industry—which as part of its work regularly investigates and scandalizes other industries—responds to scandals of its own. That is to say: Too often, they don’t.

For instance—and I have told this story many times now—I wrote in the book about how I had used the tool Help A Reporter Out to expose how easy it was to be quoted as an “expert” in the media. One of the outlets I had fooled was the New York Times. The Times could have made it a policy from that point forward not to let its reporters or freelancers use the service. Many outlets could have and should have done the same thing. Few if any did. Much to their embarrassment last year when it came out that a 55 year old pretending to be a millennial had been quoted everywhere from Forbes to Chicago Tribune and appeared in the New York Times on multiple occasions.

A journalistic culture which says you don’t need to vet your sources and a norm where openly embracing the confirmation bias is accepted practice is a dangerous and vulnerable one. Especially when the paper of record in the United States helps lower that bar. No wonder Russia managed to find ways to exploit. Not just once but literally thousands of times across more than 3,000 outlets.

Or what about Facebook, which claims not to be a media company but obviously is. In a column here in the Observer in 2015 I wrote about how a man named Brian Swichkow was able to manipulate Facebook’s ad programs to target ads to a roommate living in the room next door to him. Is a surprise then that Facebook’s ads were used to target vulnerable voting blocks with inflammatory content? I also wrote in Trust Me, I’m Lying and in this column about how paid traffic from Facebook ads can be create the appearance of viral news. In fact, the same outlets that are now outraged that Russia spent $100,000 on Facebook ads during the elections are guilty of using the very same tactics themselves. There isn’t a major media outlet in this country that doesn’t get a substantial amount of traffic from hyper-targeted Facebook ads!

Of course, the cause of Russian interference in our election was Russia’s own geopolitical ambition and desperation. That is obviously where the majority of the blame must be placed. Yet it is also true that their specific interference was made possible by the fact that good people in the media have refused to confront their many problems.

I’ll give you another example: For the last 3 years, I have been interviewing various media manipulators in this column. I interviewed Mike Cernovich, Laura Loomer, Charles Johnson, Peter Young and many others. I was often shocked in these interviews with just how transparent the folks were about their tactics. They described in vivid detail the exact playbook they used to regularly get attention in major media outlets. Though I often disagreed vehemently with the messages of these manipulators, I believed that by getting them to explain their tactics perhaps editors and producers stop enabling them.

Sadly this did not come to pass either. Instead, what I often saw was criticism from other reporters “for giving those people a platform.” Or attempts to dismiss me by association. The idea that there was something to be learned—learned about the media’s weaknesses—from these interviews simply could not compute.

As Maxwell Strachan, a senior editor at the Huffington Post, would belatedly admit:

The Russian trolls didn’t have to break into the American media ecosystem. All the holes were already there, created by news organizations and the incentives generated by the attention-gobbling social media platforms they rely on. It turns out the media was just another American institution that found itself sufficiently weakened by its own hand, aching to be exploited.

What he’s neglecting to mention, again, is that not only were the holes there, but the media was told about them many times by many people. And of course, that this is still happening. (Here’s Laura Loomer describing exactly how she creates controversies in my column…months before NBC News, The Verge, Newsweek, The Independent including the Huffington Post treated her obnoxious and racist campaign against immigrant Uber drivers as news).

There is a famous line from a media critic in the early 1900s: “We’re a country governed by public opinion, and public opinion is largely governed by the press. So isn’t it critical to understand what governs the press?” It turns out the press wasn’t interested in that understanding, or believed too much in their own invincibility to listen. Or perhaps the argument is that that they had come to understand it—they were too busy trying to keep their heads above water, trying to navigate the wicked economics of the internet race they had helped spur, to do anything in the way of prevention.

I have said before that our media system is eerily similar to the subprime mortgage crisis. Unsustainable economics. A deferral of consequences. Endless opportunities for abuse and conflicting incentives. When I wrote in 2011 and 2012, I only had a small sense of the totality of the rot and precariousness of the situation, but I saw enough problems to know that something was wrong and that something should be done.

More than five years later, watching a foreign power interfere in our election and culture with brazen ease, watching as needless conflict engulfs the world and disgusting ideas creep into the mainstream, I think we are close to a dangerous kind of collapse.

I wrote the first draft of Trust Me, I’m Lying when I was 24. I’m not proud of everything in it, but I was young enough then that I took pleasure in being right. Part of the reason the book was so incendiary was my own desire to be heard and to revel in the disruptiveness. Now that I am older, and I’ve updated and revised the book, all of that pleasure is gone. I can think only of George Trow, the man who predicted the collapse of our intellectual culture in the late 20th century, and his line:

There’s nothing fun about being right if what you’re right about is the triumph, or the temporary triumph, of the inevitably bad.

So with that, I can say “I told you so” about media manipulation and not feel an ounce of satisfaction in it.

Ryan Holiday is the best-selling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. Ryan is an editor-at-large for the Observer, and he lives in Austin, Texas.

He’s also put together this list of 15 books that you’ve probably never heard of that will alter your worldview, help you excel at your career and teach you how to live a better life. 

Also by Ryan Holiday:

The Media Needs to Look in the Mirror After Harvey Weinstein
Unpacking the Absurd Logic of Cultural Appropriation—and What It Will Cost Us
We Used to Put Statues Up, Now We Just Tear Them Down
I Helped Create the Milo Trolling Playbook. You Should Stop Playing Right Into It.
How the Online ‘Diversity Police’ Defeat Themselves, and Leave Us All Much Worse Off
We Are Living in a Post-Shame World—And That’s Not a Good Thing
We Don’t Have a Fake News Problem—We Are the Fake News Problem
Want to Really Make America Great Again? Stop Reading the News.
The Real Reason We Need to Stop Trying to Protect Everyone’s Feelings
This Is the Hollowed-Out World That Outrage Culture Has Created

I Tried to Expose Russia’s Media Manipulation Playbook in 2012 and Nobody Listened