A troubling new form of media manipulation

A troubling new form of media manipulation

Summary: Traffic to certain news stories could become manipulated by special interest groups resulting in a distorted media.

TOPICS: Government

A lot of stories begin with a pitch from a public relations person to a journalist. What if that pitch included "... and we will drive traffic to that story."

That might be a killer pitch. Especially when there are increasing numbers of journalists paid according to the number of pageviews they generate (disclosure: I am paid by ZDnet according to number of pageviews).

The pitch might not need to implicitly state the traffic boost, especially if a PR agency had a reputation as being able to boost traffic to specific stories.

In some respects, there is nothing new in this scenario: journalists want to write a popular story and they will choose stories that have that potential, whether they are paid according to the size of the traffic or not.

But there is another aspect to this that is new. If PR agencies, or any other self-interest group, can actively boosts traffic to specific news stories; it can manipulate the news media in new ways.

It might not take much extra traffic to favor a news story.

News aggregators love to pick up on "popular" or "trending" stories. A relatively small traffic boost from a PR agency can become magnified if the story makes it onto a 'most popular' list.

These types of activities would be detremental to society because it would allow a new type of manipulation of the news media by shifting attention to stories favored by wealthy special interests.

The job of a journalist has always been one of trying to sort through many biased information sources and end up with a fair and accurate story. Journalists know that PR firms are biased and that's OK because they take that bias into consideration, they know how to deal with the information they receive, what to use and what to leave behind. That's what quality journalism is all about. That's the role of a gatekeeper.

But if certain news stories can rise to prominence because of manipulation by PR or other agencies -- then the important role of the journalist, as society's gatekeeper, becomes seriously compromised. That's not good for government.

Software engineers have a saying: garbage in, garbage out. If we have a biased media, we will be less able to make good decisions. And we have a lot of important decisions to make: about the economy, energy, education, elders, ethics ... and those are just the 'e's.

Will companies and self-interest groups be able to use the media to exert more influence? Will PR agencies be able to develop new techniques of media influence that will aid their clients?

The answer to both questions has to be yes.

And the ability of the media to resist and fight back against new tactics of manipulation is severely weakened because of the massive disruption happening within the entire media sector.

Topic: Government

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  • Were you thinking of ...

    "It would allow a new type of manipulation of the news media by shifting attention to stories favored by wealthy special interests."

    You mean Intel, Microsoft, Coca-Cola, Ford, McDonalds ... and the like ;-)
    • RE: Were you thinking of.....

      You forgot corporately owned media outlets; who try to influence the news by insuring that stories detrimental to their corporate interests are squelched.

      Example: I doubt that GE would appreciate a story on NBC that was critical of an action that GE took. I would even bet that such a story would never 'see the light of day'.

      A second example: Would you expect to ever see a story extremely critical of a large company by a media outlet where that large company is an advertiser? Talk about "biting the hand that feeds you"!

      As long as media is concentrated in the hands of large corporations, we will never get 'true, honest and unbiased journalism'; corporate interests (read as stockholder profits) get in the way. People just need to better perfect their bulls--- detectors.
    • RE: Were you thinking of.....

      OR, Could this be focused towards the ending of Win XP as an Op. Sys??
      Switching to Win 7 only means the need for more RAM as well as a new, unproven program just as in the past! *And "Mo $$$$"
      I have gone from Win 95 thru XP Office, and the problems seem to always remain the same!
      For the 1st time in my life I was looking at Apple Comps the other day!
      • Microsoft, Apple, Intel, etc.

        My first Wintel PC was running Windows 3.0 and many years later after many problems relating to upgrades and incompatibilities I finally bought an Apple, only to find another load of problems plus a significant learning curve, so I'm still with Wintel for all its faults.
        Remember that the purpose of Microsoft, Intel, Apple, etc. is not to provide users with new technological wonders; their one purpose is to make money and if the users have problems in the process, so what? It amuses me to see zealots following a particular company and ridiculing others; the "hero company" has obviously succeeded in convincing them that it is the only player worth considering. This can happen to journalists too so unbiased reporting just isn't possible. Anyone who thinks it is lives in cloud cuckoo land. So we all take reporting with a pinch of salt and I don't see why further manipulation of the media will change that significantly. Despite the above, I note that I too have a hero company as I have found its products to be long-lived, fit for purpose, reliable and trouble-free and I've been using its products now for 30 years. But I'm not going to mention its name. It's sufficient to say it's not an electronics based company.
    • RE: A troubling new form of media manipulation

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  • Depends how they do it. Link on their site would make me distrust ZDNet.

    If Microsoft's web site - for instance - has an editorial hyperlink to a ZDNet news story, I am liable to distrust that and all other stories on ZDNet. And maybe that's what they want to achieve.

    But what if they mobilise an astroturf campaign on Web forums? Apparent real people telling little pieces of the world about the exciting news story about Microsoft, seen at ZDNet.

    I wish I could say I'd still be suspicious, but they are getting very good at this.

    Having said that, they're really just bribing you to write the story that they want. That's not really new technology!
    Robert Carnegie 2009
  • We're not cattle to be driven

    Despite the high hopes of both marketeers and journalists,
    people are ultimately not cattle. Journalists like to think
    that they *create* what people think, and so consequently
    the fate of the Republic rests in their hands and the
    integrity of journalists is a societal problem rather than a
    problem for each individual journalist. But I have news for
    you: A) your readers are not cattle to be driven wherever
    you want, and B) if you write retarded stories with nothing
    behind them beyond marketing or your own agenda, it's
    your personal problem - not a problem for society. Ask
    the network news or Dan Rather about that.
    Steven Rogers
    • To the Unbelievers --

      Did you know that the Spanish-American war didn't need to happen?
      "Remember the Maine!" That's right, the ship that self-destructed
      because of a spark in the coal bunker just when there was a lot of
      dust in the air. Certain newspaper chains declared that the ship had
      been torpedoed or mined, generating such outrage that the
      government had almost no choice but to respond aggressively, despite
      incomplete analysis that eventually proved that there was no attack
      against the ship.

      Take a look at the media again. If someone can create enough
      emotion about a certain project or event, they can skew public opinion
      to the extent that a desperately-needed project may be cancelled or
      an unnecessary one given priority. It can go so far, as I've just proven,
      as to cause a war on insufficient data. Biased media? Very possible.
      Can anything be done about it? Probably not.
      • Indeed!

        It was William Randolph Hearst who was the force behind this unfortunate episode. If anything it just goes to show, although the messenger has changed the message apparently stays the same.

  • RE: A troubling new form of media manipulation

    "The job of a journalist has always been one of trying to..."

    Yoda would have something to say about the use of
    "trying" in the above sentence. If journalist are busy
    "trying" to be society's gatekeepers of unbiased
    information that we are going to use as a bases for " a lot
    of important decisions to make: about the economy,
    energy, education, elders, ethics ? and those are just the
    ?e?s." Then Heaven help us.

    Journalist are totally baised by there need to keep there
    jobs. If society actually needed an unbaised press we'd
    need to set the Press up in such a way (think enough
    money so they could not be bought, Supreme Court
    Justices) that their allegiance would be unquestionable. It's
    not a new flash to say that ain't the way it's currently

    You (meaning the Press in general, not you personally)
    need to do a whole lot more house cleaning before this
    reader considers the Press to be more than interesting
    entertainment with occasional nuggets of real value.
    Bernard Shanfield
    • ..yet here you are responding to this story with poor English... nt

  • The more things change,...

    Were you under the delusion that this has not already been happening for print, television, and radio?

    If anything can be helpful, the media can corrupt it.
    • Amen to that!

      It has always been about the what's-in-it-for-me syndrome. A study of the history of journalism is rife with examples where the popular media of the day seeks to attract the allegiance of the masses to it's way of viewing information. In order to profit from selling more newspapers, Wm. Randolph Hearst said something to the effect about the Spanish-American War: ?Just send me the pictures, I'll write the story?. It is the same today, the only real change is in the delivery system. And before we get too myopic about information coming out of private interests let us not forget the benefit to governments in the control of information in their press releases and the like. There's is something in it for everyone if they can sway public opinion. I love the line from Dr. Pepper ads, "trust me, I'm a doctor". There's a red flag if ever there was one.
  • RE: A troubling new form of media manipulation

    Two problems with this story:

    One) "If we have a biased media..." To late. That's
    all I'm going to say about that.

    Two) Perhaps if many people are interested in a story
    it's not always "astroturf" or "wealthy special
    interests." Perhaps it's real grass and real people
    interested in the story. Perhaps the grass gets tired
    of being called not grass.

    This "new" manipulation is no different than how all
    media operates today. If newspapers, networks,
    bloggers, tabloids, whatever don't print/run/blog what
    subscribers, viewers, readers want, then the lofty
    gate keepers lose their jobs. So newsflash,
    journalists already are manipulated by what consumers
    want to consume.
  • RE: A troubling new form of media manipulation

    We're not cattle - yes - but we need to act not just chew our cud. Journalists (any media) are not the gatekeepers of our news, interests, or our nation we are. Lets act - stop buying into media's voice - If it bothers you - Use your voice - stop complaining in your living rooms - Use the keyboard (Pen and Paper started a revolution) to get our Nation back on track.
  • Only *new* if you don't read history

    As pointed out by pwatson, this has been going on since the beginning. The only solution to this problem is for people to stop relying on experts, pundits and reporters. They all have an agenda, even if they don't necessarily realize it. The problem described in this article is a good example of an agenda that a reporter may not even be aware they have. They pick and choose what to write about not based on what the people need to know, but based on how much it benefits the writer.

    There are no sources uncorrupted, only degrees of corruption. It's up to each one of us to decide which are more trustworthy. I would urge everyone to read as widely as possible and always keep an eye out for the trustworthy source today can be corrupted in a minute.
    • RE: Only *new* if you don't read history

      Well said - Thank you.

      I'm adding to be mindful/watchful for the most insidious bias - our own.
      And that to get to the root of that requires significant reflection and a
      high commitment to be ruthlessly honest and compassionate with
      oneself. Just getting clear about what is from our own making and what
      is inherited is a task in itself.

      Yet, I do not think there is a more important task before each of us if we
      are to win this grand experiment in living together and pass on a world
      of beauty to our future generations.
      Bernard Shanfield
      • Reporters report the news

        Or are suppose to. In this article, where is the news factor? It is pretty
        pretentious for ZNet blogger to call his work or job as a gatekeeper to
        the society. Report the news and people will make their own mind as to
        what to think of it. I know of some newspapers that do not have any
        editorial, and their columnists are presented as columnists. PR agencies
        know very well that if your press release have no news content, it will go
        straight to file 13. If a newspaper, by lazyness or by lack of resources
        decide to publish such press release, so much for the content value of
    • Exactly.

      Too many people (with their own agendas) have been trying these
      past couple decades to get people to stop thinking, to stop relying on
      any information that did not originate from the experience of their
      own eyes and ears... unless, of course, given advice by those "trusted
      people". Witness the seamier, better-financed side of televangelism.

      One of the main effects of the destruction of the Western educational
      system worldwide these past thirty years, especially in the US, has
      been a generation of people who (largely) do not know how to think
      critically, do not understand the importance of doing so, and are
      perfectly willing to let others do their "thinking" for them. This is
      precisely how totalitarian regimes of all stripes have historically been
      able to gain their power. If people discount their own intelligence,
      individually and collectively; if people submit to "elites" who are
      "better able" to guide the society, then all the advances that we as a
      species have worked for, fought for, and died for since at least the
      English Civil War, if not Thermopylae, have been subverted.

      People these past few decades have been sold material wealth and
      comfort at the price of their freedoms and intellects. Are you willing to
      continue paying that price?
      Jeff Dickey
  • It's also not that hard to manipulate the on-site "Popular" links

    Many news sites have a sidebar that shows Most Popular, Most Emailed, etc. It's really not that difficult to push a story into that queue, and once it's in there it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    You just have to start early in the day, around 4 am, and get a group of friends to email a story using the share functionality on the site. You also have those same people get their friends to click and read the page so there's unique visitor logs hitting it. Depending on how they have the algo set up to normalize for dayparts, you can find it pretty easy to "digg" a story into high visibility.

    This has nothing to do with bribing a journo in the first place, it would be after a story has been written, but thought you should know that good digital PR firms are thinking aggressively in terms of how they can provide more value to their customers.

    BTW, curious as to how ZDNet and others prevent this kind of activity by their employees. Is using lots of SEO in an article considered unfair? It's driving traffic for the mothership, so I would argue "no". So if you got a NYTimes blog to reference an article on ZDNet, would it be a bad thing for the journo to then try and manipulate the NYT Most Popular list?