News ⊂ Advertising

post by lsusr · 2020-06-22T19:19:29.948Z · score: 32 (31 votes) · LW · GW · 15 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. ↩︎

15 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by ESRogs · 2020-07-19T10:12:05.021Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · 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...
comment by lsusr · 2020-07-19T18:08:49.338Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · 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

comment by ESRogs · 2020-07-19T19:21:23.498Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · 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: https://www.gwern.net/docs/culture/2010-dobelli.pdf. Praise Gwern.

comment by philh · 2020-07-19T09:12:23.637Z · score: 6 (3 votes) · 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 · score: 6 (3 votes) · 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, lobste.rs top posts, hacker news +500 posts, a few Telegram channels (themselves news aggregators), TLDR newsletter, and O’reilly’s monthly trends newsletter.

comment by lsusr · 2020-06-22T22:53:22.832Z · score: 6 (4 votes) · 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 · score: 6 (4 votes) · 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!




comment by lsusr · 2020-06-22T20:07:19.134Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · 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 · score: 1 (3 votes) · 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.

comment by greylag · 2019-11-04T13:42:09.708Z · score: 4 (3 votes) · 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.

comment by ChristianKl · 2019-11-08T10:54:53.946Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · 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 ChristianKl · 2019-11-03T11:18:43.441Z · score: 3 (15 votes) · 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.

comment by lsusr · 2020-06-22T19:26:17.567Z · score: 12 (7 votes) · 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.

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-06-23T10:47:09.705Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · 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?

comment by ChristianKl · 2020-06-23T10:13:38.167Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

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