Lately I’ve been thinking about the mechanics of fiat news. By now we know what fiat news is: the presentation of opinion as fact. We know what fiat news looks like (pop on over to Vox and skim a few stories). But lately I’m more and more interested in how fiat news works.
The metaphor I like best is the medieval wolf trap.
Ben described the wolf trap in his note, Hot Rocks.
[W]olves expect to hunt and track their prey. By establishing a longer trail that must be navigated successfully the wolf becomes more committed to the trap the farther he goes. Third and most importantly, the design prevents the wolves from seeing each other until they get to the end of the blood trail, at which point it’s too late to escape what they now know is a trap.
Here’s the modern version of the medieval wolf trap. You probably recognize it. It’s a sales funnel.
This is how we hunt clients. Or readers. Or attention. Here’s some advice on creating a sales funnel from Forbes contributor Ashley Stahl (I can never resist a good meta joke). The part that really resonates with me?
Bottom Of The Funnel
By now, your customers trust you (as they should!). They’ve received all the benefits from the top of the funnel (the freebie they registered for on your website), and the middle of the funnel (be it emails with great content from you or otherwise), and they have some sense of who you are as a person. This is where you ask for the sale (hello, bottom of your funnel!). You want to continue to engage, of course, but you also want to offer something of even more value to your customers.
You’re a wolf. You’re doing product research or “shopping around” or consuming “some great content.” You’re in complete control.
Except you’re not. Your experience has been engineered to produce a particular outcome (a sale).
There’s nothing wrong with sales funnels. They’re not inherently evil. All sales processes more or less boil down to funnels. But the more sophisticated the funnel becomes, the less obvious it is the experience has been engineered. The more you’re led to believe you’re in control. Sophisticated funnels “nudge” your behavior while allowing you to believe the behavior was your own idea. The most sophisticated funnels replace your thoughts with fiat thought without you ever realizing it.
And this is where these funnel processes become problematic.
Fiat news is a kind of funnel process. It, too, is engineered. There are at least three stages to the fiat news funnel.
Perception: Fiat news filters the signals we receive. What is filtered out is every bit as important as what is allowed through.
Interpretation: Fiat news attaches subjective meaning to the signals it allows through the filter. This can be explicit or implicit. It’s more effective when it’s implicit, in the same way puppet theatre is more evocative when you can’t see the puppet strings.
Action/Reaction: Fiat news triggers a (relatively) predictable response to the assigned meaning.
Say I want to pump a sexy growth stock for clicks or subscriptions.
Perception: Emphasize huge TAM and “obvious” product/market fit. Downplay or omit mention of competition and low barriers to entry (if applicable). Keep the story as simple as possible. As Peter Lynch suggests, a small child should be able to understand the story in just a couple minutes.
Interpretation: The Future is coming. The Future is inevitable. People “in the know” about The Future are going to make a lot of money. Don’t be a Luddite. Luddites never make any money. Luddites are losers.
Action/Reaction: FOMO and FOMO-induced buying.
You can use this template as you go about your life, bombarded by various signals. Once you start, you”ll see it everywhere.
Rule #1 for fiat news funnel building is that you don’t allow contradictory signals through the filter. Contradictory signals induce confusion. Confusion leads to anxiety and indecision. This is the precise opposite of what the funnel is trying to achieve.
The fiat news funnel simplifies life. It adds meaning by subtracting cognitive dissonance. It remakes reality such that reality is legible and identity-compliant.
Back before I was contributing to Epsilon Theory, I wrote a short blog post about the link between sales and identity.
If your job is to sell people stuff, the path of least resistance goes something like this:
1) Sell cheeseburgers to fat people
2) Sell advice on giving up cheeseburgers to fat people
The point here isn’t to poke fun at fat people. The point is that “fat person” is an identity with a lot connotations attached to it. One might go so far as to call those connotations “baggage.”
Other identities with a lot of connotations attached to them include: “retiree,” “former executive,” “doctor,” and “little old lady who wants a good rate on her CDs.”
We’ve all got identities. We’ve all got baggage. We’ve all got cravings.
One of the most obvious fiat news “tells” therefore is that fiat news will never draw attention to ambiguity, contradiction, or paradox.
The Power of And is anathema to the creators and purveyors of fiat news.
But reality does not resolve to a clean narrative. It is messy. It is frequently ugly and unsettling. It is full of seemingly intractable problems and irreconcilable contradictions.