Quora Question: What's Wrong With Today's Media?

Media critic Ryan Holiday says Facebook is guilty of helping the media manipulate and profit off the American public. Illustration/Reuters

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Answer from Ryan Holiday, best-selling author of Ego is the Enemy and media critic, on Quora:

My belief is that we are living in both the best and the worst media environment in history. On the one hand, there has never be more information available, there has never been more participation and there has never been more access. Something like 500,000 books are published every year now—which in the past never would have been possible because it would have been too expensive, the gatekeepers never would have allowed it, and there would have been no way to access an audience. That's all great.

On the other hand, the media today is vicious, unaccountable, reckless and hopelessly corrupt. It is designed not to serve the interests of readers but to steal as much attention from readers as humanly possible so it can sell that attention in real-time to advertisers. In the same way that app companies or casinos keep people addicted with little rewards and subtle psychological manipulation, so does the media. Except the media pretends like it serves the public good. The result has been the rise of outrage porn and outrage culture, fake stories getting traded up the chain, shoddy sourcing, rage profiteering and all the crap you seen online or in your Facebook feed every day.

I've tried to make the comparison to the way the subprime mortgage markets worked before the financial crisis.

Yes, there are a few instances of outright fraud in the media. After the Super Bowl, a BBC reporter named Alex Collins was caught brazenly asking a source on Twitter to help him manufacture the angle that people were outraged about Beyoncé's performance. In 2013, one of Gawker's editors felt safe enough to openly admit that "traffic would crater" if they only printed true stories (the former viral contributor responsible for that dubious viral content is now a senior director for The Hill). There is also the nasty habit of writers benefitting from criminal hacks and stolen information to grab page views.

But these instances are really just the egregious cherries on top of a much larger, systemic manipulation—one that most people miss despite its potentially profound implications. Expressing truth the way that only humor seems to be able to, a spoof called the The Wolf Of BuzzFeed, described it with a joke: "It's simple, we target the easiest demographic in the world…Facebook users." In fact, Facebook is in a way, the bankroll behind this insanity—actually partnering with Fox News in August 2015 to sponsor the first GOP primary debate and CNN in October to sponsor the first Democratic Primary debate.

There is no clearer example of this systemic manipulation than the presidential train wreck which has unfolded before us in recent months. First, look at how the election cycle is deliberately elongated—not for the benefit of the voters or even at the request of the audience, but rather because longer election cycles mean inflated traffic cycles. Second, notice how quickly the campaign is turned into a reality show, with its never-ending cast of superficial characters, drama, and drama (did I mention drama?). It was bad in 2008 and 2012, but worse now than perhaps it's ever been. Yet, you can't look away can you? Third, atypical candidates like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are effectively subsidized by the media in order to provide the story lines those outlets require to create the compelling spectacles they need to keep the cycle going and audiences hooked.

In other words, although we have more media and cheaper media than ever before, it's all come at an enormous cost. At the end of my first book Trust Me, I'm Lying, I have a paragraph that I think explains where we sit. If anything, things have gotten much worse in the four years since I wrote it. I mean we are staring at the barrel of a potential Donald Trump presidency—a prospect so bad that it's made Hillary Clinton look positively appealing.

Anyway, here it is:

"You cannot have your news instantly and have it done well. You cannot have your news reduced to 140 characters or less without losing large parts of it. You cannot manipulate the news but not expect it to be manipulated against you. You cannot have your news for free; you can only obscure the costs. If, as a culture, we can learn this lesson, and if we can learn to love the hard work, we will save ourselves much trouble and collateral damage. We must remember: There is no easy way."

What are the flaws in online journalism and media today? originally appeared on Quora—the knowledge-sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights. You can follow Quora on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+. More questions: