News ⊂ Advertising

post by lsusr · 2020-06-22T19:19:29.948Z · LW · GW · 18 comments

For-profit news outlets are financial incentivized to write about things that are easy to write about. The easiest articles to write are the subsidized ones. Public relations firms subsidize news by writing press releases. Then news outlets republish the press releases as news. That's why so much news is corporate and political advertising.

Here are the top stories on Ars Technica at the time of writing[1].

  1. "NordVPN users’ passwords exposed in mass credential-stuffing attacks"
  2. "AT&T’s priciest “unlimited” plan now allows 100GB+ of un-throttled data"
  3. "Researchers unearth malware that siphoned SMS texts out of telco’s network"
  4. "The count of managed service providers getting hit with ransomware mounts"
  5. "Facebook deletes the accounts of NSO Group workers"

Having only skimmed the articles, I suspect they were put there by the following companies.

  1. Have I Been Pwned (breach notification service)
  2. AT&T
  3. FireEye (security firm)
  4. Armor (global cloud security provider)
  5. Facebook

The first article lets slip who wrote it in the following line.

Readers who are NordVPN users should visit Have I Been Pwned[2] and check to see if their email address is contained in any of the lists.

Can you spot how this sentence attempts to influence reader behavior?

Different organizations write articles for different news outlets. Ars Technica is unusual in its disproportionate publishing of articles written by cybersecurity firms and its relatively low density of political propaganda compared to more traditional news outlets like The Economist. The Art of Manliness Podcast interviewees usually discuss the books they're selling.[3]

News is advertising. Ad-supported news is ad-supported advertising. Subscription-supported news is subscription-supported advertising. Advertising can't directly control what you believe. Advertisers can control what you think about. The more advertising I expose myself to, the more I think about the things advertisers want me to.

Here is what advertisers want me to think about.

Here is what I want to think about.

My personal happiness is inversely related to how much news I expose myself to. It's not just a subjective feeling. I behave more healthily. I'm even more interesting to talk to.

Amateur blogs make me think about what the author thinks is important. That's a step in the right direction because amateur bloggers' interests align better with mine than do the corporate and political machines behind news outlet press releases. But they're still not me. And some of them are motivated by vanity.

I solve all of these issues by writing a blog myself. That way the author's interests align perfectly with my own.

If you liked this post, click here [? · GW].

Edit: jballoch points out that Have I Been Pwned is a noncommercial donation-supported service.

  1. November 3, 2019 at 1:43 am ↩︎

  2. The hyperlink is in the original article. It's the article's second link to Have I been Pwned. ↩︎

  3. I pick these specific news outlets because I visit them the most. Aggregators like Facebook and Reddit are different beasts deserving of a separate post. ↩︎

  4. I don't deny that national politics is important. I mean that the proportion of attention it gets on the news is greater than the proportion of my attention I wish to passively devote to it. ↩︎


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by ESRogs · 2020-07-19T10:12:05.021Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In case you haven't seen it, The Case Against News:

By and large, I think news is a waste of time. If I want to increase my factual knowledge, I read history – or Wikipedia. News, I like to say, is the lie that something important happens every day.
Most people think my position is crazy, even for me. I was surprised to learn, then, that someone even more anti-news than me got to present his arguments at TED...
Replies from: lsusr
comment by lsusr · 2020-07-19T18:08:49.338Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I hadn't seen it. I like how Rolf Dobelli makes such a clean argument in his piece.

Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career, your business – compared to what you would have known if you hadn’t swallowed that morsel of news.

Avoid News by Rolf Dobelli

He makes good jokes too.

Now people push me and and they say "But you have to know if there's a catastrophe somewhere on the planet." Really? Do I? There's probably bad things happening on other planets and I'm quite okay not knowing about them.

Four reasons you should stop watching the news by Rolf Dobelli

If news gave you a competitive advantage [then] journalists would be the richest people on the planet. They are not.

Four reasons you should stop watching the news by Rolf Dobelli

Replies from: ESRogs
comment by ESRogs · 2020-07-19T19:21:23.498Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I think he's got some good arguments in there, that are generally underappreciated.

Btw, I just noticed that the link to the pdf of Dobelli's full article from Caplan's blog seems to be broken. Thankfully Gwern has preserved it: Praise Gwern.

comment by philh · 2020-07-19T09:12:23.637Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I was reminded of this listening to Planet Money, The Holiday Industrial Complex. A bunch of TV stations ran segments on National Splurge Day. The reporter tried to track down where those segments came from, people were generally pretty cagey about it. But in one case it traced back to a PR person who wanted to get a grocery store on TV.

comment by Rudi C (rudi-c) · 2020-06-22T22:36:45.918Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think your problem (regardless of its causes) is to aggregate your news better. There are some worthy news every now and then, and completely cutting out news consumption makes one rather stupid and blind (to trends, to global affairs, ...). Considering we currently lack effective tools for aggregation, going cold turkey can be worth the costs (assuming the most important news are received via our social circle). I personally prefer to pay the costs of aggregating my news, which I currently do by subscribing to a few RSS blogs, top posts, hacker news +500 posts, a few Telegram channels (themselves news aggregators), TLDR newsletter, and O’reilly’s monthly trends newsletter.

Replies from: lsusr
comment by lsusr · 2020-06-22T22:53:22.832Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think cutting my mass media consumption would make me blind to trends. For example, the big political trend these days is advocated for on the homepage of a webcomic I read three times per week, graffitied twice on the path from my house to the nearest grocery store and displayed in giant bold sans-serif on Amazon's AWS sign-in page. Two of my immediate family members actively participate as leaders in the streets and hundreds of protesters marched through my neighborhood while I was working out in the park. When the city police repeatedly teargassed the protesters I received a series of emergency curfew notifications on my phone from the city government. Such trends are hard to miss.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

If I had trusted mass media then I would have under-prepared for COVID-19 instead of starting a company to mass produce preventative equipment the day the virus was discovered in my country. I even ordered masks many weeks before the virus was discovered in the USA. This all happened months into a period [LW · GW] where I had stopped following the news.

That said, I absolutely agree that there are no good tools for aggregation. I might reconsider the value of news if someone could build a good AI to filter it for me.

comment by jballoch · 2019-11-04T17:21:33.833Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think that the connection here should be dismissed outright; I agree that just as news has bias, and clicks drive profits, so too can news drive profits and therefore be considered advertising. However, I think, as another commenter has pointed out, you maybe could serve your argument better by digging deeper into the examples in the pattern of behavior you believe to have exemplified here and ask, "Why?"

For example, in the only example you dive deep into, its important to ask: why would Have I Been Pwned," a website I understand to be donation driven not-for-profit service and only takes in an email and spits out hits on already released data, have any incentive (or money) to get a news article published about them? This service doesn't have any benefit to have more visits.

I think one thing you can take from this community is that there is one word that holds the highest value among people who attempt to better themselves as rational thinkers: *reconsider*. Yes, you have reconsidered the incentives of new agencies, but what of yourself? You say that the relationship between your happiness and news is not subjective, but aren't all feelings subjective? Could it be the case that you are a less happy person when watching news because the news is, simply put, largely negative? Or perhaps that you, like many including myself, feel powerless in the face of negative news that is far away? Could your new sources be less biased or more diverse? Couldn't it be the case that seeking out authors that have beliefs that align with you could challenge you less as an intellectual, and therefore be less productive for your mental broadening even if it feels better?

Reconsider all things. Delve into the "why". And do not eschew that which makes you uncomfortable simply for comforts sake; take the news, blog or mainstream, with a grain of salt and a healthy dose of skepticism, and when you are going for good feelings my advice would be to avoid all news and just go do something you enjoy, like writing!

Replies from: lsusr, ChristianKl
comment by lsusr · 2020-06-22T20:07:19.134Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, you have reconsidered the incentives of new agencies, but what of yourself?

My objective when consuming media is to become happy and smart. News reduces my happiness and makes me stupid [LW · GW].

You say that the relationship between your happiness and news is not subjective, but aren't all feelings subjective?

I mean that following the news causes objectively observable behaviors that are known to reduce happiness.

Could it be the case that you are a less happy person when watching news because the news is, simply put, largely negative? Or perhaps that you, like many including myself, feel powerless in the face of negative news that is far away?

Yes. Negativity is indeed a contributing factor.

Could your new sources be less biased or more diverse?

Maybe? But I would have to go to extremely offbeat publications to get this to work. I have tried reading Al-Jazeera, news from South Africa, news from Nigeria, news from China in Chinese, anti-Chinese news in English, Fox News, my local moderate newspaper and my local radically leftist newspaper. The radical leftists produce a useful independently-researched cheatsheet during election season. Otherwise, all I found were different flavors of propaganda and advertisements. Specialized forums and independent reporters dedicated to extremely narrow topics can get around the specific bias identified in this post, but even they still run into the (unexplored by this post) Lindy Effect [LW · GW].

Couldn't it be the case that seeking out authors that have beliefs that align with you could challenge you less as an intellectual, and therefore be less productive for your mental broadening even if it feels better?

Yes? I am not sure what this is getting at because you wrote it before my comment [LW(p) · GW(p)] mentioning Noam Chomsky. Are you suggesting I seek out authors who disagree with the likes of George Orwell? That is, I should read straight fascist propaganda? I love being challenged by coherent arguments, but prolonged attention to a repetitive stream of beliefs-as-attire seems like a non-optimal allocation of my time.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-11-04T12:24:19.205Z · LW(p) · GW(p)
However, I think, as another commenter has pointed out, you maybe could serve your argument better by digging deeper into the examples in the pattern of behavior you believe to have exemplified here and ask, "Why?"

While that's a step in the right direction, there's still a good chance that you don't understand things from the outside.

If you want to understand how the news work it's important to read views from experts that actually have domain knowledge.

Replies from: greylag
comment by greylag · 2019-11-04T13:42:09.708Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is a lot of commonality between this post and the idea of churnalism, which was coined by a journalist, and appears well substantiated. There may be a difference in emphasis or intent - churnalism isn’t about deliberately manipulating the reader, but PR is, and churnalism enables this.

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2019-11-08T10:54:53.946Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My criticism isn't mainly about the conclusion but about the epistemics, epistemics being one of the main subjects of LW.

comment by gjm · 2020-10-23T11:05:00.874Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here are some of the stories on the BBC News home page (for me, right now):

  • The Biden/Trump debate last night; the headline says they argued about "Covid, climate and racism".
  • Lockdown coming in Wales in the hope of getting the Plague sufficiently under control that "Christmas trade" survives.
  • Similar article about England and Wales. (England is also tightening things up, though not to the point of full lockdown.)
  • Human-interest story about a 3-year-old whose parents were killed in fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.
  • More than 200 children's authors have signed an open letter asking the government to provide children who get free school meals in termtime with support during the holidays. (The main opposition party tried to get this to happen but it was voted down.)
  • Human-interest story about the first black TV presenter in the UK (an award has just been named after her).
  • A large clothing retailer is considering closing all its shops in the UK and some other European countries because they are in financial trouble.

If you think these are "advertising", could you indicate who you think is paying whom for them to be at the top of the BBC News home page, and why they think it worth paying for?

Of course the BBC, as a state-funded organization that doesn't have ads, is a bit of a special case. Here are some of the stories on the front page of the Guardian newspaper's home page.

  • Link to a live-updating thing on the Plague. (Headlines right now: England's death rate has increased for the first time in months, and a major city has moved into "tier 3" of restrictions.)
  • A footballer is campaigning against "child food poverty" (he's been posting a lot about it on Twitter). [This one seems not very news-like, though it relates to the same, arguably important, government matter as the one with the authors from the BBC.]
  • Trump/Biden debate.
  • Some new (not super-exciting) documents relating Prince Andrew to Ghislaine Maxwell (associate of Jeffrey Epstein).
  • Some asylum-seekers in the UK are being held in very bad conditions.
  • Edward Snowden has been granted permanent residency in Russia.

Same question again. (The Guardian is not state-funded and does run ads, or at least I think it does (my web browsers block ads aggressively, so I don't see 'em. For the avoidance of doubt, I understand that you're suggesting that news stories are themselves ads; I mention running explicit ads or not merely as an indication of what sort of organization I'm talking about.)

I wouldn't be surprised if the thing about the footballer were paid for somehow by the footballer or their publicists. (Though I also wouldn't be surprised if it's just that the Guardian's journalists spend a lot of time on Twitter and like to write about what they see there.)

My guess is that, with the possible exception of the footballer story, none of these things is an "ad" except in the super-generalized sense where everything anyone publishes is an "ad". Of course I could be wrong. If you think so, I am willing to be persuaded, but I would like to see some evidence. So far, it seems to me that all you've offered is assertions.

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not in the least denying that there's a lot of "submarine PR" around, and that lots of news stories are built around press releases that are put out by companies and other organizations precisely with the expectation that journalists will turn them into "news". I think your claim is overstated, not 100% wrong.

Replies from: lsusr
comment by lsusr · 2020-10-31T14:23:48.802Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

An advertiser can fund news by indirectly subsidizing the story itself or by directly paying a news outlet to publish it. It sounds like your definition of advertising only includes the latter. Your definition makes sense from a moral standpoint as a reporter.

I am not a reporter. I care about how to broadcast a message and how to reverse bias my information intake. The distinction between a cash payment and an implicit subsidy is irrelevant to these goals.

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2020-11-02T02:43:11.190Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

You think my definition of "advertising" is too narrow. It might be, and I take your point that there are ways of pushing a story that don't involve explicitly paying money to the people you want to publish it. (Which I didn't intend to deny -- that's why I asked "who is paying whom" rather than assuming that the whom is the news outlet.) But it looks to me as if either your definition of "advertising" is too broad, or else there are limits on it that I have failed to understand.

For me, I think what distinguishes advertisement from other forms of publication is something like this: an advertisement is there because someone else hopes to gain from my paying attention to it, in contrast to other publications which are (in principle) there because someone else hopes that I will gain by paying attention to it, perhaps because if I expect to do so then I will pay them.

There are degrees of advertising-ness. Something is 100% pure advertising if it exists, and is the way it is, only because someone has purposes that are advanced when others pay attention to it. Something is 100% pure not-advertising if those who made it value others' attention only because those others get, or think they get, something valuable from it. Scarcely anything is 100% pure either way. Subliminal advertisements, to whatever extent they work, would be 100% pure advertising. Maybe if I hire you to do some sort of analysis, and you do it as accurately and honestly as you can, your writeup is 100% pure not-advertising.

Charles Dickens wrote Bleak House partly to encourage reform of a malfunctioning part of the English legal system. It is more than 0% advertising. But he also wrote it to provide readers with an engrossing story, interesting characters, good writing, and so forth, and it continues to be read after the Chancery Court was abolished. I would find it perverse to say that it "is advertising", still more to say that "novels are a subset of advertising" just because many of them have some sort of persuasive purpose.

It looks to me as if news is more advertising-y than novels, but I am not persuaded that news is advertising-y enough to justify the claim that "news is a subset of advertising".

You gave a number of concrete examples of stories in Ars Technica that you think are there at least partly because someone else hopes to profit from their being read. You may be right. If so, that establishes that those stories are more-than-0% advertising. Maybe they're close to 100%. So far, so good.

On the other hand, when Ars Technica publishes a liveblog of the latest Apple announcement event, it's doing so not only because Apple made it possible for them to do it by inviting their journalists (and, for all I know, providing other incentives of one sort or another) but also because it turns out that quite a lot of people want to know what shiny things the world's most successful shiny-thing company has just announced. Those things are a long way from being 0% advertising, but they're also a long way from being 100%: a major reason why they're there and are the way they are is because lots of people actually want to read them. I, personally, would not say that they "are advertising".

Similarly, when they publish reviews of particular products, no doubt they have been provided with free samples to review, and no doubt the vendors are hoping for favourable reviews, and it's not hard to imagine a variety of incentives for the reviews to be positive. So, again, not 0% advertising. On the other hand, by and large the products they're reviewing look like ones a lot of readers are genuinely interested in reading about, and so far as I can tell they don't outright lie about the products in their reviews, and sometimes they publish negative reviews that it's hard to imagine the vendors being happy to see. All of which, to me, indicates that a substantial part of why they're publishing those reviews is because a lot of people want to read them. So: a long way from being 100% advertising, too.

I do agree that the tech press is pretty damn advertising-y, but even there it seems to me that there's plenty that I would not find it reasonable to call "a subset of advertising". However, I'm more interested in news, hence my examples from the BBC and the Guardian. I do not find it plausible that most of the stories I listed have a substantial advertising component. Let's take the first example I mentioned: the top story on the BBC's website when I wrote my comment above was about the then-recent Biden/Trump debate. That's a thing a lot of people genuinely want to know about. (Whether they should want to know about it is maybe a worthwhile question, but "pandering to unwise desires" is not the same thing as advertising.) So far as I can tell, the article was a reasonably accurate description of some of the more notable things said in that debate. If you think it's "advertising" then I want to know who it is that (1) gains from my reading it and (2) has, in pursuit of that gain, influenced the BBC to put the article there.

Likewise for most of the other stories I listed. They mostly don't seem like stories whose reading brings much benefit to anyone other than the reader. They mostly don't seem like there's anyone who would be expending trouble or resources to get news outlets to publish them. And they mostly seem like the sort of thing that readers go to the BBC or Guardian website in order to find.

I don't claim that any of them is literally 0% advertising, but with a couple of exceptions they all look less advertising-y than Bleak House. And unless I'm wrong about most of them, that for me is enough reason to reject the claim that "news is a subset of advertising".

Hence my request: if the story about the Trump/Biden debate, or the story about a clothing retailer being in financial trouble and maybe closing all their UK shops, or the story about the COVID-19 death rate in England having increased for the first time in a while, is "advertising", tell me who the advertisers are. Tell me who benefits from my having read the stories. Tell me what you think they did to get the stories published.

I think those stories are there mostly because they're things BBC/Guardian readers would want to know about. To whatever extent I'm right about that, they are not advertising.

Again, to be explicit, I am not saying that every story, or nearly every story, on the BBC or Guardian website is not-advertising. I bet the footballer one is advertising. I wouldn't be surprised if the children's-authors one has a lot of advertising about it. (Though I think that one's like the Ars Technica Apple liveblogs: it's a story seeded by someone with an interest, but it's also the sort of thing their readers would want to know about.) I entirely agree that "news" and "advertising" have substantial overlap. But I think your headline claim goes substantially too far.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-11-03T11:18:43.441Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It seems to me that the epistemics of your article are those of standard conspiracy theory. You see a pattern and instead of looking deeper for evidence whether the pattern is true you write a post proposing it's true by pointing to the pattern.

Replies from: lsusr
comment by lsusr · 2020-06-22T19:26:17.567Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I run a company that has been featured in the media, so I get a look behind the curtain. Paul Graham writes about this experience in The Submarine.

For deeper, more traditionally academic-style evidence, you can find the propaganda bias painstakingly documented in Manufacturing Consent by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky. A more recent take is available in Hate Inc by Matt Taibbi.

This post merely illustrates a phenomenon I have been investigating for a long time.

Replies from: ChristianKl, ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2020-06-23T10:47:09.705Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The claim that likely all of the top stories on Ars Technica are there because of a PR agent is a very different claim then the one that Paul Graham makes in The Submarine that plenty of stories are written because of PR agents.

It's  worth noting that the Graham article used to be faulty in his first version to the point that he had to correct it. 

I run a company that has been featured in the media, so I get a look behind the curtain.

Are you really saying that no journalists contacted you that you didn't contact?