When Clinton was President, Ryan Holiday writes in Trust Me I’m Lying (copy sent me by publisher, Ryan is a friend),
[Matt] Drudge accused prominent journalist and Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenhthal of a shocking history of spousal abuse — and one covered up by the White House, no less. Except that none of it was true. . . . An anonymous Republican source had whispered into Drudge’s ear to settle a political score against Blumenthal. . . . [Drudge] refused to apologize for the pain caused by his recklessness.
In spite of knowing this, I still read Matt Drudge. I don’t have to. There are a zillion other things to read. That may or may not make me a horrible person but it illustrates the depth of the problem that Ryan writes about: Spreading lies pays.
A more mundane example is press releases. Bloggers love press releases, Ryan says (speaking from experience working at American Apparel). All the work is done for them. So what if press releases are profoundly dishonest in the way they present a half truth (positive stuff about the product) as if it is a whole truth? It’s an easy way to get a few thousand clicks. “I recall sending e-mails to Gawker and Jezebel on several occasions over matters of factual errors and not receiving a response,” writes Ryan. “My anonymous tips seem to arrive in their inboxes just fine — it’s the signed corrections that run into issues.” A car site published a rumor that turned out to be false. A friend of Ryan’s complained that the headline wasn’t fixed:
[Ryan’s friend:] Why keep the headline up since we now know it’s not true?
[Car site:] You guys are so funny.
Taking the headline down would generate fewer clicks than leaving it up. Shameless.
“That way lies madness,” I told a friend who worried about how much traffic his blog attracted. Bloggers who will do anything for a click do so, of course, because their salary depends on it, whereas my friend did not get significant income from his blog. Sure, paying bloggers by the click pushes them to write stuff that people want to read — which sounds good, aren’t snobs bad? — except what if people don’t care that much about the truth?
I think of science. Who do professional scientists more closely resemble? 1. Bloggers who will do anything for a click. 2. Disinterested seekers of truth. Well, it’s a job, not a hobby. Science and job are not a good fit (as I’ve written), just as factory food and health are not a good fit. We can see the consequences of the bad fit between factory food and health in the obesity epidemic (which I believe is caused by eating calorie-dense quickly-digested food that tastes exactly the same each time — factory food is much more standardized than food you make yourself) and the epidemic of digestive problems (caused by too-sterile food — factory food is more sterile than food you make yourself). We can see the consequences of the bad fit between science and job in the failure to find solutions to one growing problem after another (obesity, Crohn’s disease, autism, depression, poor sleep, etc.). Trust Me I’m Lying is about the consequences of the poor fit between being paid by the click and caring about the truth of what you write.