Manipulating the net: How much can we trust what we read on the net?

Evgeny Morozov’s “The Net Delusions: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom” is one of the most important books I have read. Having read it two years ago, I now often treat web news, in particular those coming from social media (e.g., Facebook and Twitter), with plenty pinches of salt.

Recently, another important book “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator” by Ryan Holiday reaffirms my view that the web can be a dark and dangerous place to obtain information.

These two books show that we are naïve. We believe the web is a boon to democracy because it gains us access to more information, more empowerment, and more opportunities for social activism. We believe the web, through its propagation of information, create “shared awareness” such that we not only better understand a situation but also better understand what others are thinking too. Through shared awareness, we believe the web coordinates loose groups of people into collective action to demand change.

“Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator” by Ryan Holiday.

“Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator” by Ryan Holiday, Portfolio Hardcover, 2012.

But the truth is the web does not free us from information bias, conflicts, manipulation, and sensationalism. To believe otherwise is not only naïve but also utopian.

We are naïve to think the web reveals the truth. Instead of the truth, we can be subtly manipulated to react in a desired manner (photo from rapgenius.com).

We are naïve to think the web reveals the truth. Instead of the truth, we can be subtly manipulated to react in a desired manner (photo from rapgenius.com).

Holiday’s “Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator” is the first book of its kind. It is an exposé of a self-confessed and (partly) reformed media manipulator. Ryan Holiday’s job involves the dark arts of carefully creating, packaging, and feeding false information to the web. He would then sit back as his false information spreads virally to achieve its intended outcome.

Ryan Holiday, self-confessed online media manipulator (photo from bewareofimages.com)

Ryan Holiday, self-confessed online media manipulator (photo from bewareofimages.com)

Holiday is the person you would hire to manipulate information on the web for some specific purpose, such as to promote a product brand, to create controversies (when there is initially none), or to target your enemies with fake information or rumor. What is worse is Holiday is not alone. There are many such media manipulators out there and whose identities are unknown even to seasoned Holiday.

So, yes, we the web users are naïve, and we have been subtly duped and exploited many times over.

In his book, Holiday writes that news on the web is not a critical investigation of issues, but engineered to hook, distract, and cause us to react in certain desired manner. With the advent of the web, standards of what constitutes news, how news are vetted for validity, longevity of news, and the tone news are presented have changed for the worse.

We have been taught to believe that written information have validity, but with the advent of web, this belief has been corrupted by media manipulators. Web news are speculations, impulsive, exaggerated, distorted, and misleading.

The result is what Holiday calls as “unreality”, a situation whereby we cannot distinguish truth from fiction, real outcome from what was staged, relevant from trivial. Furthermore, false information in the web do not stay false; they evolve to become accepted as real.

Unreality occurs because of the so-called link economy and the delegation of trust. This is a case when a news or story is linked by multiple sites, and each site assumes the story has been verified by the source from which this story was taken. In other words, trust has been delegated to other parties. Web sites commonly rely on other sites to provide stories, to borrow stories from one another. A site may perhaps add a few commentaries on a story it linked, but essentially, the story is taken in verbatim, often with no or little verification.

About 16 million or  65% of Malaysia's population are internet users, of which 12 million people use Facebook and nearly half a million use Tweeter. Social media sites are accessed at a rate of about 19.4 million times per hour (photo from humanwebsite.com.my).

About 16 million or 65% of Malaysia’s population are internet users, of which 12 million people use Facebook and nearly half a million use Tweeter. Social media sites are accessed at a rate of about 19.4 million times per hour (photo from humanwebsite.com.my).

Multiple site linkages to a story gives appearance of credibility, akin to multiple citations to a scientific paper. But unlike in science where evidence is verified independently and repeatedly, web articles receive no such cross checks. Instead, in the world wide web, the false can morph into real if the false is disseminated by enough people (or sites). False information are often not taken down quickly and can even persist for years in the web.

Holiday gives several reasons why the web is an easy breeding ground for manipulation. Web sites are driven by traffic and advertisements, which ultimately determines the site’s revenue. Consequently, quality of information is less important, as long as the information triggers traffic or better still, goes viral. The value of information is not determined by its accuracy or helpfulness but by its “spreadability”. If the information is not shared, the information is regarded as useless. Furthermore, the quick turnover of information on the web places enormous pressure on sites to produce news, which leaves little time for research or verification.

This kind of environment makes it easy for media manipulators to feed false information that have been designed to arouse powerful emotions in people so that the information goes viral. But arousing just any emotion will not do. Holiday cites a research by Berger and Milkman in 2011 who found that of all emotions, anger was found to be the most powerful criterion that causes people to share information. In short, anger – not sadness, depression, or mixed emotions – makes information viral. Similarly, the research by Lang in 1996 found that people were provoked more emotionally, paid more attention, and had better memory recall of negative than neutral video footages.

Furthermore, fake stories are designed to additionally anticipate for user comments. Media manipulators do not want stories that are too safe, too well written, or complete in information because such stories elicit no comments. Fake stories have to be incomplete, incendiary, and even misleading to provoke people to comment. Media manipulators would not only create fake stories, but also create fake comments to supplement the fake stories. Made-up comments from fake users are given to stage a scene of a heated and polarized debate on the fake story. These media manipulators may also send fake emails to reporters or web publishers to give an impression that some trivial issue has turned “hot”.

Errors in news are propagated quickly and widely in the web. But corrections are seldom done and even if done, these corrections are seldom highlighted, noticed, or remembered. Errors remain “sticky” in people’s minds. Holiday cites a research where corrections do not fix errors. Instead, corrections were found to fortify and entrench people’s misconceptions. That corrections amplify misconceptions is surprising. It is as if people regard corrections as a cover up on deception.

A good example of the futility of correcting errors is Malaysia’s opposition street rallies, collectively called as “Blackout 505”, which is so named in response to the perceived blackouts that had occurred in some vote-counting stations. Even though these blackouts were shown later to never have occurred, this misconception still persists, perhaps even amplifying in people’s minds that these blackouts were further evidence of election fraud.

Blackout 505: Despite being shown that blackouts had not occurred, anti-government street rallies continue to call themselves as Blackout 505. Corrections to misconceptions have been shown to backfire by making misconceptions stronger and more permanent (photo from malaysianreview.com).

Blackout 505: Despite being shown that blackouts had not occurred, anti-government street rallies continue to call themselves as Blackout 505. Corrections to misconceptions have been shown to backfire by making misconceptions stronger and more permanent (photo from malaysianreview.com).

Another serious problem with news from the web, Holiday adds, is some sites practise “interactive journalism”, where, information are published first, then verified later. Such news are updated frequently by relying on others to validate the facts, to send in updates, or to send in additional sources for contact. Interactive journalism does not create finished articles, but create articles that remain work-in-progress, awaiting further input. This kind of journalism encourages misinformation, allegations, rumors, half-truths, shoddy reporting, needless information, and endless projections and predictions. Interactive journalism also encourages sensationalism. If stories are anything but sensational, why would anyone read these so-called interactive news and participate by sending in updates?

The problem with interactive journalism is the information presented at any one time may be inaccurate or even downright wrong. The news may be updated frequently, but people see only a snapshot of the information at a point in time. Even the crowd-sourced and collaborative Wikipedia has been fed with false information by media manipulators, which has led to false information being propagated by other sites as fact. Although the wrong information was later corrected or deleted from Wikipedia, the false information continued to persist in some news sites. If you have not been following the Wikipedia updates or corrections, you may take these false information at face value and accept them as true.

So, at the end, what hope do we as web users have? Holiday offers little hope or resolutions in his book. Far from freeing people with greater access to information, the web polarizes people, exacerbating differences between groups of people by filtering of information and by helping to present information on what people only want to see. The web, Holiday remarks, is hardly the place for revealing the truth; instead, the web is a place for cultural catharsis, made up of online lynch mobs, attack blogs, smear campaigns, cyberbullying, and trial by comments.

Perhaps it is time, Holiday suggests, that we demand quality of information and not quantity. We cannot expect instant news and yet expect it to be done well. No one owns or controls the information flow on the web, not completely anyway. Media manipulators, Holiday admits, are manipulated too on the web. After years of misusing and exploiting the web, Holiday has become frightened of what the web has become.

Drawn over a century ago, this drawing depicts the manipulation of media news, often resulting in increasingly larger lies, deceit, and harm that ultimately goes out of control. Ryan Holiday sees himself as

Drawn over a century ago, this drawing depicts the manipulation of media, often resulting in increasingly larger lies, deceit, and harm that ultimately goes out of control. Ryan Holiday sees himself as “the fool who feeds the monster” (photo from Ricardo Galli via Google+)

Holiday’s book uses several examples of media manipulation in the US, but it is not difficult to find similar examples in Malaysia. Government-hired blogs, the mysterious Red Bean Army, and lone operators have been working anonymously in the background to manipulate the web for devious, ulterior purpose.

An alleged cybertrooper member of the Red Bean Army who broke ranks by revealing the Army's activities of misinformation and intimidation, all to serve DAP's purpose (photo from mole.my).

The mysterious Red Bean Army, opposition-sponsored media manipulators to spread misinformation and intimidation? (photo from mole.my).

The web can indeed be a dark and dangerous place to obtain information.

Sources

  1. Berger, J. and Milkman, K.L. 2011. What makes content viral? Journal of Marketing Research: 49: 192-205.
  2. Brendan, N. and Reifler, J. 2010. When corrections fail: the persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32: 303-330.
  3. Lang, A. 1996. Negative video as structure: emotion, attention, capacity and memory. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Arts, Fall 1996: 460.
  4. Shirky, C. 2011. The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change. Foreign Affairs, January/February 2011.
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Comments

  1. in social science, prisoner dilemma theory is applicable in every day life.
    The society we live in does not pay the speaker to tell the truth, thus we have all sort of lies today.

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