(This article is heavily based on the book Trust Me I’m Lying by Ryan Holiday: https://amzn.to/2TXPz0O)
One of the most advanced technologies in the world has led to the rise of one of the most primitive behaviours human beings can exhibit.
Between 1400-1700 in Europe hundreds of thousands of women were identified as witches were burned at the stake. Entire villages would turn against any woman accused of being a witch. Even the leaders of the small village would turn against the woman and order her to be burnt alive.
It's a primitive behaviour based on groupthink and mob mentality.
And yet somehow, in 2018, the witchhunt has made a comeback. Only this time, the hunt is conducted in the digital world. And the scale of the hunt is 1000x bigger.
While it might seem strange to find such behaviour in the modern world, it shouldn't be surprising. Because the very STRUCTURE of internet blogging and modern news GUARANTEES that this will happen.
But we're getting ahead of ourselves. Let's start by using a simple example.
There is no better example of this phenomenon than looking at the story of one man.
Meet Julian Blanc. "The most hated man in the world"
At least, that's the title you'll see if you google his name.
An impressive title, to say the least. How does somebody receive such a horrific title? Is he a mass murderer? A child molester?
Neither. He's a pick-up artist. Julian conducts seminars in which he teaches dating advice to men.
This is how the witch hunt of Julian Blanc happened:
THE DIGITAL WITCHHUNT SPIRAL
See the digital witchhunt is like a spiral. A spiral that goes downhill with increasing speed an momentum.
This is how Julian's digital witchhunt spiral begins.
During a 5 minute section of a 3 hour seminar he said the following:
"If you’re a white male in Tokyo, you can do what you want.
’Im just romping through the streets, just grabbing girls’ heads,
just like, head, pfft on the dick, head on the dick, yelling, ‘Pikachu,’
with a Pikachu shirt"
Sounds pretty distasteful. But spend 10 minutes watching any of his other content and it's clear to see that none of Julians other content goes down this kind of mysoginist train of thought. Obviously, this quote is said as a joke. It's not serious. At all.
It all started when somebody edited this 5 minute section of his seminar and posted it online. The video was then cut together to imply that these comments were said with pure seriousness.
The short video began to go viral on Tumblr which attracted the attention of many small blogs around the internet. It travelled all the way up the media chain to the most well-known blogs on the internet.
The spiral begins to pick up speed.
The video went global and an angry online mob began to form. The mob managed to find out about a seminar Julian was scheduled to hold in Australia and thousands of them called the hotel threatening to give them bad reviews if they host him.
Now in our world, recieving thousands of 1 star reviews within the space of a single day is enough to destroy a a local business. The hotel is left with no choice but to cancel the seminar. The online mob then uses the exact same tactic with every other venue Julian tries to book.
The angry mob then starts a petition. An online petition that can be signed multiple times using different emails was signed by people all over the world.
This in-turn gives the blogs more fuel for their articles. The story is passed around hundreds of blogs around the internet.
The story becomes so huge that it attracts the attention of the Australian Government, who then revokes Julians Visa on a technicality.
A new headline emerges "Pickup artist banned from Australia". The blogs feed off the new headline and the new story circulated around the internet once again.
(In truth, the issue with the visa was sorted within a matter of hours and Julian was never banned from the country. But facts like these arn't important).
Now this new headline increases the perceived seriousness of the event. After all, if he's been banned from a country it must be serious. This gives the blogs a THIRD story to write about. A new headline emerges "Julian Blanc promotes sexual assault".
Petitions begin to emerge from all around the world in an attempt to get Julian banned from other countries as well.
A fake twitter account emerges with the name of "RSDJuIlan", sneakily replacing the L with a capital I. This prankster starts posting obnoxious and misogynist tweets such as: "The hottest women are often the most insecure, don't forget to treat them like trash" and "Don't worry, only abuse women".
Once again, the blogs rush to write their next story about these comments. Failing to notice the fake Twitter username.
People begin to post actual ransoms on Julian's head. He begins to recieve hundreds of death threats.
The final headline emerges. "Julian Blanc, the most hated man in the world"
A completely shocked and terrified 25 year old Julian Blanc then appears on CNN in a prime time interview to make an official apology for his actions.
This story was traded up the media chain all the way up to CNN and International governments.
THIS IS THE POWER OF THE MODERN DAY WITCH HUNT.
All it takes is 10 minutes of watching Julian's content to know that he doesn't promote sexual assault. He's not even a misogynist. Just a dating coach who shares his dark sense of humour with his audience.
But the truth doesn't matter to the world of modern news.
Now this isn't the only story of this nature. There's Sunil Tripathi, the dead teenager who was accused across internet, with a witchhunt that went from Reddit all the way to The New York Post. There's Pewdiepie, the Youtuber who's bad sense of humour around Nazi imagery got him a place on international news.
But here's the thing.
None of this is surprising.
Because the news has changed. And the way modern news is structured means this is always going to happen.
To understand how this could happen you need to understand online blogging
THE WORLD OF ONLINE BLOGGING
Gone are the early days of blogging as a hobby. Blogs today are a Business.
Bloggers take their jobs very seriously. It's their livelihood after all.
Most blogs make their money through advertising. You can use Google Adsense to to place banner ads all over your blog. Each time somebody clicks an ad, the blogger makes a small amount of money.
Now when you when you have audiences in the millions, you're looking at annual income in the six figures.
But that's nothing. The real goal is the sale of the blog itself.
The blog Huffington Post was sold to AOL $315 Million.
The Washington Post was sold to Amazon for $250 Million.
Blogging turns people into multi-millionaires. And of course there is a constant marketplace of blogs at all price ranges.
NO MATTER WHAT ONE THING IS CLEAR. CLICKS EQUALS MONEY.
Blogs want traffic no matter what.
Bloggers, especially the ones working full time, are required to pump out 3-4 articles per day. It's often badly paid and they're desperate for clicks, comments and shares.
To a blogger, an article with a comment section full of outrage and arguments is the mark of a successful article.
THE NEWS HAS CHANGED
Before the internet, news sources often relied on a subscription based model. People would pay a monthly fee to subscribe to a newspaper. This put newspapers in a position of responsibility. This business structure means that false reporting and a lack of fact checking would result in a major dent in the newspaper's reputation.
The newspaper was paid to make sure their stories were accurate.
Even TV news has a reputation to uphold. While TV is particularly guilty of focusing on unimportant news stories like celebrity gossip or sex scandels, they are still under pressure to make sure their facts are correct.
And newspapers and TV have a limited space. Each paper could only hold so many articles and TV news only has so much time to fill.
With digital news, everything is different.
People interact with news differently on the internet. Most people don't tend to have one particular news site they stick with. The majority will get their news through online searches or their Facebook newsfeed.
Because there is no subscription model and their whole business model is based around the sheer number of clicks, the quality of the content becomes far less important.
So when it comes to breaking news, the name of the game is to get the article out as quickly as possible. There is very little penalty for a poorly written article, or a lack of fact checking. Because once the article has drawn in clicks, the money has been made.
BLOGS WILL PUBLISH ANYTHING, AS LONG AS IT DRAWS CLICKS
Even when the facts are wrong, like throughout most of the Julian Blanc scandal, the blogs will still profit massively. The blogs never bothered checking to see if Julian was actually promotes sexual assault because the headline "Julian Blanc promotes sexual assault" is too tempting to miss out on.
There is no incentive for online blogs to get their facts straight. But there is a massive incentive to sensationalise, exaggerate and speculate.
On top of that, digital media has an INFINITE amount of space to fill with content. With no limit on the amount of content that can be produced, why does it matter if you write a garbage article?
And when blogs are called out for posting false information, they will issue an apology at the bottom of the article AFTER THE FACT. After the story has died.
In fact, oftentimes when a blog gets the story wrong, they get to publish a second article stating the correction that draws even more clicks.
This creates a dangerous situation where people like Julian Blanc will get pumped through the system and have their reputation destroyed with lies and misinformation.
THE BLOGS FEED OFF EACH OTHER
This is what makes the online news machine really deadly.
Blogs don't have time to go out and do ACTUAL JOURNALISM.
You know, heading into the real world, interviewing people, doing investigations. That's so 1960's.
No, blogs look to OTHER BLOGS to find their stories.
The higher tier blogs will collect their stories from the medium tier blogs who will in-turn find their stories from the barely-known blogs.
The barely-known blogs don't tend to worry much about fact-checking. Facts can get in the way of a juicy story. The medium blogs take the story and don't take responsibility for checking the facts.
IT GETS PASSED ALL THE WAY UP TO THE TOP OF THE CHAIN AND NOBODY HAS CHECKED THE FACTS.
And that's how a massively exaggerated story full of lies can be passed all the way up to the Australian government. And this is why, hours after the Boston bombings, The New York Post reported that a Saudi national was a suspect under armed guard at a Boston hospital, when there was no truth in this whatsoever.
The thing is, these blogs carry with them the illusion of authority and trustworthiness. The audience see's the professional looking website and assumes that the information must be reliable.
Most of the audience grew up in the old news era. The era when newscasters would be punished for getting their facts completely wrong.
What people don't realise is that the way news works has completely changed with the emergence of the internet. Even major TV networks such as CNN and MSNBC get much of their news through stories that have been passed up the online chain.
And so we have the modern day witch hunt.
Fuelled by the world of online blogs, people across the internet have returned to mob mentality and groupthink.
Perhaps if people knew how modern news operated they would be less likely to join the witch hunt so fast.