Ryan Holiday literally wrote the book on how to generate attention by stoking controversy -- it's called Trust Me, I'm Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator. And now, Holiday says he recognizes those tactics being used by Milo Yiannopoulos, the alt-right icon and blogger who has been courting protest and outrage on a college tour (and with a book deal).
Most recently, Yiannopoulos's speaking engagement at the University of California Berkeley led to massive protests, and his speech was cancelled. Holiday says the protests and outrage are exactly what Yiannopoulos wants, and he talks with Bob about how to effectively respond to speech intended to provoke.
Holiday's column for The Observer this week is called "I Helped Create the Milo Trolling Playbook. You Should Stop Playing Right Into It".
Superstition by Sungha Jung
BOB GARFIELD: Earlier in this show, we mentioned the notorious alt-right icon and troll, Milo Yiannopoulos. He’s the guy who was banned from Twitter for serial harassment of actress Leslie Jones, the guy who sells shirts that say “Feminism is Cancer” or, most recently, the guy whose speaking engagement at the University of California Berkeley led to massive protests.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Police say there were about 1500 people who turned out last night to protest Milo Yiannopoulos coming to campus, those protesters calling him racist and sexist.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT: Broken windows, barriers broken, fire on campus…
MALE CORRESPONDENT: Fiery protests block a Breitbart editor’s speaking engagement at Berkeley, sending Milo Yiannopoulos to safety instead of the stage.
BOB GARFIELD: About an hour after a group of anarchists started inciting violence and destruction of property, the university canceled Yiannopoulos’s speech. Victory for the protesters? Maybe. Victory for Milo and his online band of merry misogynists? Ab-solutely. Post-protest presales for his book, Dangerous, skyrocketed, and a previously niche hatemonger was everywhere.
MILO YIANNOPOULOS: People were bleeding, people were beaten. You know, all sorts of things happened to people who just showed up, not all of them who were fans of mine but just who wanted to come and just listen to what I had to say. You know, and those people were, were, were attacked, physically attacked, right? This is political violence in response to perfectly mainstream opinion…
BOB GARFIELD: According to Ryan Holiday, author of the book, Trust Me, I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator, the whole thing was a trap that we should have seen coming. In fact, he says, the Berkeley protests are a textbook example of how not to fight trolls like Milo. And he would know. Milo appears to be following Holiday’s textbook, which recounts his own intentional demonization of his own client, a guy named Tucker Max who wanted publicity, any kind of publicity for his book about drunkenly seducing women.
You wrote the textbook on media manipulation. Take us on a walk down “Manipulation Lane.”
RYAN HOLIDAY: I mean, I think the one that's most similar to what we’re seeing now with some of the members of the alt-right is that when Tucker independently produced a movie based on his book, we thought, okay, how do we get people to see a movie about this? And one of the ideas we came up with is perhaps the best way to get young men to do something is to have someone else who is not a young man tell them they should not be allowed to do that thing. And so, what we ended up creating was a very real national boycott of the movie controversy that rippled into the editorial pages of newspapers across the country. There were protests on college campuses. Advertisements were, were vandalized. Now, I did some of the evangelization myself and sent pictures to blogs. We made deliberately offensive advertisements. You know, we called in some of the complaints. But what you’re really doing is sort of inciting that Internet mentality of, oh, people are doing this, I want to join in. And it became a, a very real thing.
BOB GARFIELD: You make no bones about being a marketer but your method of marketing is built on disparaging the product [LAUGHS] itself, the ultimate expression of the idea that I don't care what they say about me, as long as they spell my name right.
RYAN HOLIDAY: That is exactly right, so typically you want a product that’s so good that people recommend it to their friends and you don't really even need to do any marketing. Well, if that can’t happen, and I think that's true for a lot of these alt-right ideas, what you exploit then is what's incendiary or offensive or awful about them, deliberately attracting the attention of the people who hate what you do and get them to denounce you as loudly as possible, knowing that each time they do so, if 9 out of 10 of the people that, that hear it hate you but 1 out of 10 hear about you for the first time and are open to the ideas, you have made a new fan. It’s a jujitsu move, really. You’re using the weight of a – an outlet or a public figure against them to recruit for you.
BOB GARFIELD: You're now trying to be part of the solution. You’re like the addict who goes to the middle school assemblies and says, kids, don't be like me.
RYAN HOLIDAY: Yes, it's - it's scared straight.
BOB GARFIELD: What that Yiannopoulos has done strikes you as being sort of torn from the pages of your book, Trust Me, I’m Lying?
RYAN HOLIDAY: He finds the people who, when he pisses them off, they make the loudest amount of noise, and then you continue to hit that group over and over and over again with things that it's almost too much for them to ignore. And there is not a better place for a provocateur to go, if they want media attention, than from college campus to college campus, you know, sort of very politically correct, very online driven, very activist driven. To go from campus to campus with something you call the Dangerous Faggot Tour is, in and of itself, a brilliant media provocation, and, and he has been rewarded for that in many ways, already.
BOB GARFIELD: Your cynicism and that of Yiannopoulos would be irrelevant if the media weren't there dependably to cover the reaction to incendiary, hateful, ignorant comments. Could Yiannopoulos be a thing, if it weren't for the complete inability of the media to resist a controversy?
RYAN HOLIDAY: I think that is the most uncomfortable thing for people to hear. A story about someone who invokes a polarizing reaction is exactly what a publisher wants in a world where no one subscribes to their specific outlet but, in fact, only finds out about it if it is shared widely on social media. So we have this reciprocal dance where one person makes a move and then the other person writes about it, ‘cause they know that that person is a reliable traffic get, because that's good for their bottom line, as well.
BOB GARFIELD: There's a wrinkle to the Berkeley episode, and that is that when the university shut him down over, you know, presumably public safety concerns, he got to come out as a First Amendment martyr. Did you have to stand up and, you know, give him an ovation for having mastered the art of provocation?
RYAN HOLIDAY: I certainly appreciated and acknowledged the strategic success there. I mean, when you try to suppress someone else's speech, especially on a college campus that’s supposedly about these safe spaces and protecting people, when you march en mass to prevent a gay immigrant conservative from speaking about whatever they want to speak, you are ceding the moral high ground and it’s fundamentally undermining any credibility or argument you should have with normal reasonable people, especially the people in the center who I think are the swing vote on these things.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so you wrote the handbook. If you were to write the handbook for those trying to, you know, shut down ugly provocateurs before they even get started, what would that look like?
RYAN HOLIDAY: It's interesting. You know, the word that I see thrown out there the most, the thing that people are somehow afraid of, they’re, they’re afraid of “normalizing” all of this. But I actually think that's exactly how you should be thinking about it. You’ve got to remember that, particularly to the audience that a lot of these groups appeal to, being told that something shouldn't be allowed, that it's forbidden, that it's, it’s an offensive truth is what makes it appealing. So you are showing the, the followers, the, the members of this mob that, oh, they’re – they have to shut us down, they have to use violence because we’re onto something.
If you think the ideas are so preposterous and so embarrassing and illogical, the best thing you can do is let them speak, to let the ideas fight in the arena of ideas, not to prevent them from being shown because it tends to have the exact opposite effect.
BOB GARFIELD: Let’s move from offensive truth to offensive untruth. As you surveil the tactics of Steve Bannon and the president, do you see any of your own fingerprints on that or is there - are we witnessing a different kind of manipulation altogether?
RYAN HOLIDAY: [AUDIBLE EXHALE] I, I don't know and I'm not totally sure if I would put the two of them in the same camp. But I do think they have both grasped that outrage is a blinding, irrational emotion and if you can provoke it in your opponent, it so knocks them off their block that you have free rein to do whatever you want, while they try to comport themselves. You – you’ve sort of seen this in Trump’s campaign. It’s just one scandal, outrage after another. And I think the longer game there is that eventually the opponent gets so fatigued, so gassed that they're out of it. And, and that's my real worry when I see this outrage machine going 24/7 over big and minor things, alike, is that there's no prioritization, there’s no clarity and, and what is the endgame there?
BOB GARFIELD: Ryan, thank you.
RYAN HOLIDAY: Thanks for having me.
BOB GARFIELD: Ryan Holiday is editor-at-large for The Observer and author, most recently, of The Obstacle is the Way.
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That’s it for this week show. On the Media is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess and Jesse Brenneman. We had more help from Micah Loewinger, Sara Qari, Leah Feder and Kate Bakhtiyarova. And our show was edited – by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Terence Bernardo.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schacter is WNYC’s vice-president for news. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I’m Bob Garfield.