Week 24 — Media Manipulators: How They’ve Been Duping Us All Our Lives

Adriel Fong
7 min readFeb 28, 2021

“How can Donald Trump say something like that!”

You scream something like that in your head as you read today’s flagship online news headlines. You also find your blood boiling and you have this innate itch of wanting to share it your outrage with a close friend or family member … or anyone really.

So what do you do? Well you find the share button, click the share button and with a quick whirr of your phone, ding! Done. Article shared.

Mission accomplished. Not for you of course, you’ve just been conned by a media manipulator, you’re the sucker, the mark and the victim.

The rise of media manipulators have plagued our society for the better part of the last decade, with these conmen taking a piece of content like how you’d use a fire-starter before a barbecue and blow it out of proportion.

Why do I say this?

Well … In the field of journalism there has long been a shift in the way content releases are governed. The nature of content includes all forms of media by “journalists” from printed ink to blogging to videos and even audio.

That shift is largely due to the disruption of social media. In Ryan Holiday’s book, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, he exposes the inner schemes of the media industry and how most online “news” sites are written in a way to distort the truth.

We all know fake news exists everywhere online. But what’s shocking is the length in which the media industry will go to attain one goal: eyeballs.

A Gross Lack of Journalistic Standards

A study done by Cision and George Washington University presented that 89 % of all journalists reported using blogs for their research for stories. Roughly half reported using Twitter to find and research stories, and more than two thirds use other social networks, such as Facebook or LinkedIn, in the same way. Don’t even get me started on Wikipedia.

Because of their shift in reliance on traditionally unreliable sources, what kind of articles do you expect them to churn out? Just imagine writing a research paper on Thermodynamics and citing a blog or even Wikipedia as part of your literature review.

This is the sobering reality of journalism or lack thereof. The focus no longer belongs to writing factual and accurate articles but rather publishing anything that can and will draw eyeballs towards the story and eventually, the website.

One of our own Venture Builders in NTUitive experienced this firsthand.

During the first half of the year in 2020, Zheng Jie contracted Covid-19 and he had documented his journey of recovery on Instagram as a means for his friends and family that cared about him to make sure that he was well taken care of by our brave medical warriors.

Along came a “journalist” who was a loose acquaintance to Zheng Jie that decided to slide into his DMs, looking for the latest scoop in Covid city. The fabricator requested for an interview and was flat out rejected by Zheng Jie.

A week later, the national Chinese Daily Lianhe Wanbao 联合晚报 in Singapore ran with a headline that read “NTU Student does not understand how he got COVID-19 even though he stayed home during the CB (or home quarantine order) Period”

This fabricator had taken snaps off Zheng Jie’s Instagram to fabricate a story that led people to believe that you could contract Covid-19 from the confines of your home, even though there isn’t any truth in that. He had posted flat out lies on a Chinese newspaper where he knew the main audience were terrified elderly folks in order to skew public perception to accomplish their own selfish agendas.

The sheer lack of journalistic standards is appalling. It’s one thing to cite Instagram photos and videos as a source for your articles, it’s another to be lying and decontextualising your sources so far from reality that it becomes a whole other beast.

I am unsure if Zheng Jie has succeeded in getting the newspaper to remove the article one year on.

But frankly, do you really think that a large news outlet in Singapore would kowtow to any of our peasanty demands? Probably not.

This whole debacle with Zheng Jie’s Covid-19 themed Instagram Stories proved to me that Ryan Holiday was right. Starving journalists everywhere are so desperate for stories that they are willing to do anything to get their works published, even to the point of lying. The worst part? These are merely print journalists, imagine how much more ruthless online journalism can be.

Why is it that case?

Well, Ryan Holiday sheds light on the reality of the blogging sphere whereby the need for a 24/7 constant stream of stories is the difference between survival and failure.

You write or you die. You choose.

Trading Up The Chain

This sets the scene perfectly for manipulation. Ryan speaks about a concept that he uses all the time.

He calls it “Trading Up The Chain”.

To illustrate this concept he first lays out the different media tiers. Small local blogs lie at the bottom of the pyramid while websites like Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, Business insider are on the second tier. At the apex lies the sharks, the big boys, ones with global influence. They are your news stations that appear on the national evening news.

So what Ryan does to exploit this system is to first fabricate stories or “leak” information from his work email to the small local blogs, making sure that he targets blogs that he knows the mid-tier media journalists constantly use as references. Once you get enough content hungry low-tier reporters selling the “leak”, that’s when the mid-tier journalists begin to circle and bite, not wanting to miss out on the action.

You see where this is going. Once enough mid-tier journalists cover the story, major outlets then begin to report on it and this gains national attention.

This happens all the time, stories that aren’t real end up becoming real because of the media storm that happens around it.

Floyd Mayweather Is A Master Media Manipulator

One of the greatest boxers to ever live, Floyd Mayweather is by far the most controversial and hence, the richest boxer to ever live.

Not only is he a master in the ring, he is also a master in business and media manipulation. To have amassed $1.1 billion in career winnings is not a fluke and I believe part of what makes him so rich is his ability to play by the rules of the media and even exploit it.

Floyd Mayweather is best known as a defensive boxer. As the name suggests, this makes Mayweather fights incredibly boring and to be frank, very unwatchable.

So, why do people tune in and even buy a Mayweather PPV (Pay Per View)?

He has built a persona around himself that gives everyone the illusion that he’s a rich asshole that does not care about anything and anyone. He then provides the media with whatever ammunition needed to fire off shots into the world.

He doesn’t necessarily trade up the chain, though I believe some of the boxing controversies involving him have used that exact strategy. But the point here is that he understands exactly what the media is looking for and he feeds it to them consistently so that the media now becomes his mouth piece to shift public perception.

Then he sits back and lets the trolls and enraged netizens fan the flames and grow the story while he focuses on what he does best: boxing.

By the time his training camp is almost over and media coverage on him is at it’s peak, he has already garnered so many haters that they would be willing purchase a PPV ticket to watch him LOSE.

People don’t watch Mayweather to see him win, people watch because they want him to be beat up and spit out like a used piece of chewing gum. But his boxing IQ way too smart for that, he would never allow that to happen.

So, who’s the ultimate winner here? Mayweather sells the fight, he wins the fight and he’s laughing his way to the bank.

Recognise masters like him and learn, but don’t be fooled by him.

What can we do to prevent such manipulation?

  1. Be aware of it, it’s much harder to spot compared to exaggerated news because it is supposed to come from reputable sources. But if you look carefully, you’ll realise that the sources referenced are unknown sources, there’s definitely something fishy going on.
  2. Hold off on sharing the story. Don’t share it if you smell a rat. ESPECIALLY when it enrages you.
  3. Look beneath the surface, look deeper, people don’t say things for no reason

If you’ve enjoyed what’s been shared, let me know!

Till next week!