Russian actors may have run an online disinformation campaign during the 2016 US presidential elections, but they likely learned their tactics from Americans. As part of our investigation, PBS NewsHour series producer Cameron Hickey tracked down one of these junk news pioneers, Cyrus Massoumi. He runs liberal and conservative junk news sites, which have millions of followers on Facebook. I continue my conversation with Cyrus on this episode of Miles To Go. You can listen to Part 1 of our conversation here.
Miles O’Brien: Hello! Welcome to Miles To Go, I’m Miles O’Brien.
Our conversation with a pioneer in the realm of junk news continues today. If you missed part one, I invite you to check out episode number 12, this is lucky number 13… Although, it’s okay to just start here, if you like. It’s not like we’re missing an episode of Handmaid’s Tale or Westworld or something.
In the course of our 16 month investigation on junk news for the PBS NewsHour, producer Cameron Hickey and I found 26-year-old Cyrus Massoumi. He’s a young man with a knack for creating blood-boiling headlines that make you want to click.
This kind of content appeals to the tribal aspects of human nature. And, as we all know, the results have not been pretty.
Miles O’Brien: To what extent are you exacerbating some real fundamental problems in this country, almost tribal problems, which could pull us apart?
Cyrus Massoumi: Gosh! Well, I mean it would be wonderful if somebody asked other outlets that.
Miles O’Brien: Maybe a better question is this. Do you classify you and your publications, your online publications differently than mainstream media or is it all the same to you?
Cyrus Massoumi: Two things. I am currently working on a plan with two of the other largest publishers to consolidate roughly 50% of the political market, the political Facebook market into one umbrella corporation, so that we will essentially no longer have to compete with one another. And as result of this, we will be able to deliver the public higher quality news, better written longer pieces, higher quality, everything. To the second facet, I do think that it is not ideal to have the environment be the way that it is. Simultaneously, I mean it’s not like I — if Cyrus had not been the first one, it’s like weeds, there would have been another Cyrus that would have been — six months down the road, or a year down the road.
It’s a bi-product of independent media. Also to understand, independent media is so important because for example, the mainstream news sources, they won’t do stories which contradict their ad dollars. They won’t do stories against pharmaceutical companies. They have sources like at the Pentagon, they won’t report about empire. It’s like the list goes on and on and on and on.
Independent media on the other hand, we’re beholden to no one. So, in the early days of Mr. Conservative, I would spend thousands of dollars trying to get a story that I thought was like really important done.
One time, I spent $10,000 getting a huge profile done on Sgt. Robert Richards. He was the guy who urinated on the dead soldiers — dead enemy soldiers. I found out that, that the same day, a bunch of horrible things had happened to him. One of his teammates had been shot. That same day a five-year-old had pointed an AK-47 at him and he had to shoot the kid and then they heli-vacced the kid. That same day, he had found some of his comrade’s limbs hanging from trees from a blast. None of that was reported and he was not actually charged for urinating on the bodies. He was charged for technical violations. He was charged for not wearing his helmet while he was using his rifle and for throwing a grenade over a wall where he could not see past it, like let’s say you look up and then you come back down and you throw it over, right?
So, it’s like I spent a huge amount of money doing that and I originally hated the guy. And then after we did the paper, the research, I was like, “Oh, wow, this is so much more interesting.” How much money did I make off that story? Like 20 bucks.
Miles O’Brien: Why?
Cyrus Massoumi: Nobody wanted to click on it.
Miles O’Brien: Why not?
Cyrus Massoumi: Because it was interesting — I mean, because it was a good story. It wasn’t like, “Ugh, Obama. It’s raining. It’s Obama’s fault.” It wasn’t designed for the drooling masses. It might have worked on 60 Minutes, where you have a captive audience who’s sort of in a mood. But in the context of the internet war, like Facebook, it just speaks to the fact that Facebook wants to be something that it isn’t. Facebook wants to be a place where a story like that would flourish, but it isn’t.
Behind closed doors they keep making these executive decisions like, “What if we take all of our drooling retards and we turn them into these intellectuals who want to read 10-page stories?” I’ve got news for you Facebook. I’ve tried to write 500 words, 1,000 words, 1,500 words, 5,000 words, I’ve tried to spend $10,000, $5,000 to get unique stories. People don’t read them.
People want — the people who are like fans of Mr. Conservative and Occupy Democrats and Truth Examiner, they want 250-word, little — hit them and go! Just give me my little — it’s like basically like a coke addict. Like a coke addict, it’s like every hour he just needs to get that little dopamine rush. Like a fan on the conservative side or the liberal side needs to take out their phone, look at it, “Oh, Trump sucks… Trump sucks, so bad. All right, all right, I’m done, I’m done” and then — right? Like, that’s it. That’s it.
Miles O’Brien: People don’t care about the facts?
Cyrus Massoumi: Yeah, of course. Of course they don’t. Sorry, is this news — news on the news show; people don’t care about facts. Take it to the bank.
Miles O’Brien: So, here I am toiling away with my thousand-word stories trying to get people to watch. It’s never going to happen is it? Right, Cyrus? I’m screwed, aren’t I?
Cyrus Massoumi: Look, man, I mean I’m sure like there will come a day when maybe there will be a renaissance revival of something. But the future is not so good. In the context of social media. I mean people are always going to read The New York Times or The New Yorker but like — people should not make things what they are not. Like you don’t go and find like a gold digger as a wife and like give her Shakespeare and be like let’s have an intellectual conversation. Facebook is not going to become like something that it isn’t.
Miles O’Brien: What should Facebook be?
Cyrus Massoumi: I can tell you what Facebook shouldn’t be. Facebook has been doing this thing called the “shadowban.” So let say that there is a Conservative group, let’s say Mr. Conservative or Fox News or whatever. If you banned that group, that would be censorship, right? Now, what if instead of banning it you reduced the reach of it 98%. Let’s say that a Conservative page has a million fans and every time they post a story, 100,000 people see it. After the fake news fiasco and to present day, Facebook took let’s say that 100,000 number on the Conservative side, and they took it down to 2,000 people, a 98% reduction.
So for example, I have friends who are making $300,000 during the election months, each month, and I believe that they were doing $5,000 last month.
Miles O’Brien: How about yourself?
Cyrus Massoumi: I didn’t get hit that bad. I mean I shut down Mr. Conservative as a Conservative business and I switched it to primarily like posting like feel-good stories. I maintained my business on the liberal side, and on the liberal side I have taken like let’s say like a 60% hit.
Miles O’Brien: So, since the election you found that the Conservative side of things is not as lucrative?
Cyrus Massoumi: This is universal. There has been a shadow ban. Facebook is avoiding a PR dilemma by shadow banning.
Miles O’Brien: So, Conservative content won’t cut through the algorithm and get into the feed, is that what you’re saying?
Cyrus Massoumi: That’s exactly what I am saying. The cost of just even having one or two writers, it would be a net loss to keep running those pages.
Miles O’Brien: So, is Facebook for all intents and purposes censoring?
Cyrus Massoumi: Yeah, I mean beyond a shadow of a doubt. They took millions of dollars from publishers and they put out guidelines and publishers followed those guidelines and they still did this.
I have spent like over a million on Facebook, I’m probably close to two actually, and I have friends that have spent way more than that. We don’t even have like anybody to email or call at Facebook after spending millions of dollars and having our 90% to 98% reductions in profitability.
I mean could you imagine — imagine if like you did this special and 98% less people than usual watched it. You would basically be like, “Were the airwaves down?” There is no way to call it but censorship.
Shadow ban is just like a silly term. If the public knew that over 50% of the Conservative market on Facebook has literary shut itself down now, that would’ve been — if it had been banned, everybody would be furious. But they’ve done it in a very clever way.
Miles O’Brien: There’s not a lot of transparency there.
Cyrus Massoumi: There is zero transparency on Facebook. I can’t even call Facebook, like nobody can reach Facebook. I know one journalist who can maybe get a response after a few days from Mark Zuckerburg’s assistant.
Miles O’Brien: You’ve described yourself as patient zero, pioneer, whatever you want to call it, by the time you get to the election session, fake news, junk news, whatever you want to call it became ubiquitous. What was that like?
Cyrus Massoumi: No.
Miles O’Brien: Tell me what I misunderstood there.
Cyrus Massoumi: There were about a dozen stories, which were fake, which were extremely viral. For example, some of them that people will remember, the Pope endorses Trump, Denzel Washington endorses Trump, things like that. The people that that reached had already made up their mind, okay? So if we can just cast that aside and say, okay, those might have been super viral but the people that they reached, it didn’t convert anybody.
A critique that they have done of that — the rebuttal that people like to say is, “Well, it was part of an ecosystem of fake news.” Well, no, there’s not an ecosystem of fake news. There is an ecosystem of misleading news, but misleading news is just CNN or Fox, okay? CNN and Fox, try switching between the channels, nothing to do with one another. So, both of those are misleading.
So when you talk about an ecosystem of fake or junk news — no, there were like a dozen super viral fake stories and there is an ecosystem of misleading news and that ecosystem of misleading news may be more partisan than CNN or Fox. But that’s by design. I mean people just want something which is more partisan on their phone for a quick read, right?
I mean if you have an hour to listen to Hannity, then you have an hour get angry. If you only have two minutes, then you have two minutes to be angry. So, it’s really just a matter of economics.
Miles O’Brien: Would you then say you’re just part a spectrum here of misleading outlets?
Cyrus Massoumi: No! There is a scale where you start in the middle as just like balanced, tilted, then there is click bait, then there is misleading, and then there’s fake. And what Facebook has done is that they hired people who they claim are objective, right? So, they went and they hired Liberal fact-checkers okay, from like PolitiFact and Washington Post, whatever. And they’ve said, “Monitor this” and these are people who have no understanding of this, right? Basically they said, “Here’s the problem over here”. These are not what they wanted to eliminate.
Miles O’Brien: Outright falsehoods is what they were after, right?
Cyrus Massoumi: When Rachel Maddow does a report or Jake Tapper or Tucker Clarkson, and they just exclude all of the information you don’t like. There isn’t some hysteria in the media to go like, “Well, we need to start a petition so that they include all of the information on the other side.” It’s like “No!” this is like a partisan show, like you know what you’re buying into. If you want objective, I wouldn’t– don’t go to like ABC or CBS because those are just as liberal, but like watch C-SPAN or something or just like die, then you’ll get really objective news.
Miles O’Brien: Junk, fake, there was the term you used a little while ago. I want you to just expand on. You talked about the fake news fiasco. What do you mean by that?
Cyrus Massoumi: If you were someone who thought that there was a 97% chance that Hillary was going to win and then she lost. Fake news was just one perfect part of an explanation to explain your new reality, because let’s say you live in San Francisco, LA, New York, Chicago, Boston. If Trump just won and there were not tertiary explanations then you’d have to accept…I mean how uncomfortable would you feel knowing that you live in New York and as soon as you drive 40 miles outside of New York, like 97% of the landmass of the country that you live in completely disagrees with you.
So then you look like the recipe and you’re like, if there’s fake news and there is like Russian collusion and there is vote tempering, and there was voter suppression. These are all things which then sort of make your reality start making sense again.
And so the fake news fiasco was just like a perfect moment to go — well of course Hillary lost. It’s not that she was the worst candidate in the history, it’s not that the polling showed that Bernie Sanders, the polling that they hid, that he would have beat Trump. Like okay it’s like this is amazing Hillary, she was slandered.
The Russians spent some of give hundred thousand to a million, right? Hillary spent a billion, okay? If there is advertising guy in Russia who can win when Hillary spends a billion and you spent a million, he should move here and be the chief marketing guy at like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram because the guys is a beast, okay? Like he’s better than me, and that’s saying a lot. Because again, I spent more money than him, like it’s just how can you reconcile your reality? Because the only other way will be like, I’m living in a reality which I don’t recognize like this is not my country. And it’s so much easier to be like, “Oh no, no. This is my country it’s just my poor fellow countrymen like they just they were manipulated and lied to.”
Miles O’Brien: We’re looking for excuses is, is that what you’re saying? Want to point the finger somewhere?
Cyrus Massoumi: Yeah. Because what’s the alternative? The alternative is that you live in like a — the alternative, the real alternative is that you live in a country which has been savaged by automation, savaged by like the coming AI, savaged by outsourcing, savaged by drugs, savaged by illegal immigration.
But don’t point the finger at any of these things like you know point finger like across the aisle, right? Like look for the false problems, like don’t look for the real problems. And so what did Trump say, Trump had a western cultural nationalist message whereas Bernie Sanders had a European socialist message.
Both of these are essentially very similar. The primary difference is is that Trump’s has to do with –- not white identity which is what is often confused in the liberal media but a cultural identity. An idea like Theodore Roosevelt said that we should have one language, one culture, one people, one flag, undivided that there could be no half-hearted Americanism.
The reason that Trump is so hated is not because of you know the tape where he talked grabbing or you know anything else.
It’s because he’s not ashamed to say, “My team’s the best.” While as Hillary didn’t really have a message, her message was is like anti Trump, lots of political TV commercial ads and that like you know, we’re stronger together. And then they say like, “Diversity is our strength” and then with the other fist they go, “And we’re all equal” and then I reply, “But if we’re all equal then how can diversity be our strength because that’s a logical fallacy, because equal parts, it wouldn’t matter how many you had if it were actually equal. It’s just a pile of bricks that are all equal so logical fallacy.”
Miles O’Brien: How good are the Russians? How much of an impact did they have in the election do you think and how much will they have on the midterm elections coming up?
Cyrus Massoumi: In my personal view is someone who — I mean I don’t say this as like someone who just adores Trump for pissing off liberals.
I say this just as like a guy who’s actually probably read much more on it than you know probably even most journalists that are looking into it, negligible.
Miles O’Brien: Didn’t move the needle?
Cyrus Massoumi: How do you move the needle with $500,000?
Miles O’Brien: Did you move the needle?
Cyrus Massoumi: No, because I was targeting people who were already — it’s cheapest to target people who already have a bent. So it’ll say very conservative or very liberal, right? And targeting those people is cheap. Now, targeting independents is like 25 times more expensive.
So if you spend like $500,000 targeting those independents, you would get nowhere which is why nobody does it. Like you target the people on the periphery and then maybe they have friends that they might share to, okay?
Miles O’Brien: So, this is corollary to anger sells. The people who are angry are the ones at the edge of the spectrum.
Cyrus Massoumi: Right. But okay and then like let’s take the arguments like the next degree. So I just said, it would be cheaper -– so let’s say the Russians tried to influence the election and they spent $500,000 to a million dollars targeting the very conservatives. The people that would be cheap to target thinking like, well these people are going to get angry and then share their news with their independent friends, the only argument that you could make, okay? How is that million that they spent any different than the million that I spent? And how is it any different than the hundreds of millions of dollars that the RNC spent or that the Trump campaign spent?
Miles O’Brien: So you don’t think you had any influence on the election?
Cyrus Massoumi: No. I think if a steak has a thousand calories and you cut off one calorie of that steak and said, “Did you eat that steak?” I mean my answer would be no but I mean obviously, yeah theoretically, I ate the steak but I mean would you notice that one calorie of your thousand-calorie steak — no.
I mean obviously, I took pebble off of the beach but is the beach still the same? The beach is still there and I don’t even — it’s just silly. Yes, I had an effect but it was like — to call it negligible would be an insult to the word negligible.
Miles O’Brien: So you’re offering up red meat to the people who like to eat meat?
Cyrus Massoumi: I’m in the business now of giving news to liberal people and I don’t view that as a contradiction because I have —
Miles O’Brien: Well, they like red meat too. I mean I’m just saying red —
Cyrus Massoumi: Too, I thought they like tofu and stuff.
Miles O’Brien: The red meat meaning —
Cyrus Massoumi: Oh, I know.
Miles O’Brien: Taking aside their desire for meat or not, or veganism or all those other things. The point is you’re offering up the kind of political fair that people on the edges want.
Cyrus Massoumi: Doesn’t everything, everywhere do that? Like doesn’t E! entertainment give you red political meat? Is there anything on a media device which is not red meat in this category?
Miles O’Brien: All right so, it’s good for business. How did you do through the election?
Cyrus Massoumi: We did very, very well but we’ve spent all of it growing. I made like not for I don’t want to insult people out there. I did not do very well for how Cyrus does to talk like Trump.
Miles O’Brien: So, I mean this was not seven figures, this was —
Cyrus Massoumi: So, for me, a normal year would be like I don’t know, like 250 to 325. And I think probably last year, it was like soft six figures.
Miles O’Brien: So, the election wasn’t good?
Cyrus Massoumi: No, it was that like you make $150,000 but you’ve already got $800,000 in advertising expense that you fronted.
Miles O’Brien: So your expenses were higher for some reason?
Cyrus Massoumi: So I spent like let’s say a million dollars buying fans, right? And then for a few months during the election, you make a 150, 150, 150. Well you’ve gotta pay down that million that you spent buying all those fans, right? So if there’s another election, and I’m not buying fans then I’ll pocket that. But I’m saying my expenses were huge. I bought over 10 million, we did over 10 million fan purchases just last year, so a lot of fan purchases. Just in time for Facebook to totally eff me over.
Miles O’Brien: Well, I want to talk about that in minute but just the day after the election, did that fundamentally change your whole business model?
Cyrus Massoumi: Well, I was too busy celebrating, watching recaps of the election night meltdown —
Miles O’Brien: All right, so two days later, after the hangover or whatever, did it occur to you that the business model had changed or when did it dawn up on you?
Cyrus Massoumi: I was nearly upset because my business partner — I told my business partner probably very, very early in election year, I said, “We should buy liberal, okay?” And it took probably like six to eight months before he was like, “You know what, why don’t we try like buying liberal?”
Miles O’Brien: So this is like a hedge fund?
Cyrus Massoumi: You won’t meet somebody who loves politics more than me but sure. Literally 12 hours a day. But anyway, I was just sad because it was like — I was like, “Thank God. This is going to be amazing. Like this is going to be great for business.” And it’s just going be like the best, it’s like a four-year long movie, like watching the news. Like I watch Morning Joe and it is better than going to the movie theater.
But I was just angry that we didn’t buy, like I don’t know, 10 million more liberals or something. That would have been awesome.
Miles O’Brien: So you’re buying liberals now?
Cyrus Massiumi: As of now, nobody on the liberal or conservative service side is buying anything.
Miles O’Brien: Why not?
Cyrus Massoumi: Because everybody is terrified of what Facebook is doing. When I like to refer to Facebook algorithm changes, I call it the “blind angry monkey” because I envision that the executives, I don’t actually think there are executives with Facebook. I think there is a control room and there is a blind angry monkey in a cage and sometimes Zuckerberg hits a button, and he gets out and he starts messing with all the controls, and then it just goes haywire. That’s what it feels like to be on the receiving end of their algorithm changes because they put out like an eloquent blog post where they’re like, “Do this, this, this, this,” and then you do that, blind angry monkey comes out, finished, your traffic’s down like 80% and then like every month you go up like 10%, 10%, 10%.
Blind angry monkey comes out again like you’ve been doing everything right then your life’s over again.
Miles O’Brien: Facebook is now something that it probably never imagined it would be. Given the amount of traffic that goes through there, it’s become the de facto public square. Does it owe all of us something different? It is after all a business.
Cyrus Massoumi: What, should Facebook be a public utility?
Miles O’Brien: I don’t know. What are your thoughts?
Cyrus Massoumi: Was that your question?
Miles O’Brien: The question is, has Facebook become something more than just a private enterprise? Is it the de facto of Public Square, and if that is the case, does it owe our democracy something more?
Cyrus Massoumi: I think that we have reached a juncture where there has to be two things. One, there needs to be some form of oversight to stop this shadow banning, right?
Like you can’t just have organizations be shadow banned– basically have their businesses shut down without the public knowing, right?
Miles O’Brien: And that’s what’s happening?
Cyrus Massoumi: It’s happened, yeah, the Conservative side, gone on Facebook. You could be following a hundred Conservative pages and you just — all the time on Twitter or Facebook, I think I’m following a page, I’m like, “I haven’t seen their stuff in forever.” And then I go there and it’s like, I even have it prioritied. And actually even on the Liberal side, it happens but way less. Because they’re just trying to favor places that they want their brand to be commensurate with. They want New York times, Washington Post which I’ve tried to explain to people that’s not what people want to read on Facebook.
So first thing, their needs to basically be some sort of oversight of the way in which the Newsfeed is managed, so you can’t just engage in censorship without there being any knowledge or recourse.
Second thing, there needs to be a dialogue not by the executive team at Facebook, but collectively perhaps amongst intellectuals, experts, society, talkshows in which we say, “What should Facebook be?” Because on one hand, we have like — what would Facebook be if there were no rules to the algorithm which decides what shows up?
So Facebook has to make let’s say, some executive decisions. But then beyond those basic executive decisions, if they’re going to say, “You know what, we don’t like certain types of news, we only want what we think is highbrow because that’s commensurate with our brand,” then, I think that that’s a debate which should had in public or people should be aware that what is essentially the largest media utility in the world–
Yeah, it is the largest media utility. Yeah, it definitely, should happen in public.
Miles O’Brien: It’s kind of like decisions are made in the proverbial smoke-filled room. Should there be like some sort of non-profit public trust that manages the algorithm at Facebook?
Cyrus Massoumi: I wouldn’t call it that because it is their business, they are a private business. It’s just that — and it’s not just Facebook. I’ll put it to you like this, if you’re banned from Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, right? Your first amendment rights have essentially been abridged. And I know that that’s like a more modern interpretation of the constitution. But you have no right to engage with your fellow citizens or complain against your government if you don’t have venues to complain on social media any longer.
What you’re going to do, write letters to your congressman, in comparison to what is actually available?
All I can do is sound the alarm. I don’t think it’s my place as a publisher to tell people what it should be. But I think that it would — in watching this interview, people should realize that I’m sounding the alarm. There is shadow banning, there is censorship, and I’ve seen it happen on both Facebook, and Twitter, and YouTube, it’s also happening on YouTube. And if we keep going down this road, very, very bad things will happen in my mind.
Miles O’Brien: Like what?
Cyrus Massoumi: Well, I’ll give you an example. Everybody is like — on one side, you have like fake news and then on the other side you have like the fear of like Nazis. But the definition of what a Nazi is has like really become broad.
So, let’s say you label someone a Nazi and they tweet something or post something on Facebook, there is like a mob of Antifa and social justice warrior activists. And these are people who are masks when they go out in public, so they can never be identified but they will get these people fired.
So, let’s just say like somebody like me, I think that being transsexual is a mental disorder, right? Which was an uncontroversial view 15 years ago. And I say, “I think it should be illegal to give children under the age of 13 hormone blockers which castrates them,” if I say those two things. And I had a job working at a law firm, and now they contact my law firm and they get me fired. And not only do they get me fired but now when you Google my name, that’s like the only thing that’s comes up. Now, I have go down the rabbit hole of maybe becoming an activist in a Nazi group, right?
By pushing people out of the Public Square for controversial views in the way that Facebook is doing as a corporation and activists are doing as individuals, is forcing people to become more radical than they ever would have been if you actually took their ideas on intellectually.
Miles O’Brien: Let’s talk a little bit about the business as it is. By the way, I should tell you, you keep talking about the shadow banning.
Just anecdotally the PBS NewsHour site has had a dramatic drop off in traffic. So, it’s affecting things across the board. Now, you would probably classify that on the Liberal side of things.
Cyrus Massoumi: Right.
Miles O’Brien: But the tinkering with the algorithm is affecting a lot of businesses all over the place right now.
Cyrus Massoumi: So, I’ll put it to you like this, if there is a change and the Liberal side goes down 60% and the Conservative side goes down 98%, I don’t think that it’s fair to make comparisons.
Miles O’Brien: Well, I’m just trying to tell you, it’s not just.
Cyrus Massoumi: No, I know because the Liberal side went down too. But the Liberal side you can still run a business on the Liberal side, you can’t run a business when you’re 98% down.
Miles O’Brien: You’ve hopped over the political fence here because this is where the business model is right now. Describe how this business compares to what it was like before?
Cyrus Massoumi: I enjoy it. So, I’m very excited to speak about this. So, I grew up with Bill Maher as I said previously is my political god. And it was my —
Miles O’Brien: So you grew up a liberal? Or just liked him because you liked the way he formed a thought?
Cyrus Massoumi: Well, Bill Maher is sort of a very — a freethinking intellectual or at least he was until recently. He hated the Iraq war and I hated the Iraq war. So I think that his freethinking views in certain regards — he was fresh 10 years ago. He was fresh and interesting. And I feel sort of a genetic need to oppose those in power like cellular. The conservative side really became trashy and I actually hated looking at Mr. Conservative for a few years there.
On the other hand, the Liberal side, I like reading the articles. And when I look at what the Trump administration is doing, whether I agree with a certain policy or not or whether it’s a ridiculous Trump tweet. Those things need to be covered, and I really enjoy that I have a business where I’m able to pay people who can cover these things, because people need to know.
So, my staff, my editor in chief is a masters in economics from Columbia, and my staff writer is an English professor. I believe he taught at Drexel. So, it’s a very qualified staff, they’re very, very good at what they do. And I’m thrilled that we’re able to cover things in a way that I never was on Mr. Conservative. Mr. Conservative was always inflammatory but never fake. Because there are distinctions. Always inflammatory, excluding facts from the other side, but never fake.
The differences is that in what I do now, my team, they don’t cover news angles which are favorable to opposition in the same way with CNN would never cover a favorable angle to Trump or MSNBC. It’s like if he has a great day, they just find some — I have no idea how they find the stories that are some bizarre side story. But the point is, is that I am proud of my team and I’m proud of the site, unfortunately there is problems with the Facebook algorithm as of now. But I’m very excited to grow over the next four years, three years ideally into the largest Liberal social media presence in the country.
Miles O’Brien: So, you’re a mercenary?
Cyrus Massoumi: I don’t know if I owned Ben and Jerry’s and I didn’t like ice cream, would you call me a mercenary?
Miles O’Brien: There is a certain — a political nature to what you do here, you’re political — well —
Cyrus Massoumi: I love politics.
Miles O’Brien: Yeah, you make no apologies for hopping on the other side in this case because that’s where the money is.
Cyrus Massoumi: I would make apologies if I did something on either side which was not of quality.
Miles O’Brien: You say you do high quality?
Cyrus Massoumi: On Truth Examiner?
Miles O’Brien: Yeah.
Cyrus Massoumi: Yes, in the context of what is available to me.
Miles O’Brien: Well, explain that then in the context to what is available.
Cyrus Massoumi: Okay, so if New York Times and Washington Post sent me an email, Besos and whoever. And they were like, you can copy all of our articles and just post them on Truth Examiner. I would say, “No thanks, I can’t use them.” Because when people are on their phones, they don’t want to read those articles on Facebook.
So, then what I do, in the context of Facebook, is exactly what people on Facebook want. Like they aren’t you and they aren’t normal intellectuals from New York or other — wherever. They aren’t New York Times readers necessarily. Maybe some of them are but the majority of them just want a 250 to 350 word article which will get them a little bit fired up. So, in the context of what’s available to me, I produce the best possible product.
Miles O’Brien: Is the business any different now that you’re coming at it from the other direction?
Cyrus Massoumi: There is much more anger, there was always more anger on the Conservative side. I have attributed that to two reasons. I was on the Conservative side first so a lot of people followed my lead and copied me and a byproduct of that competition was more animosity.
Secondly, I think that conservatives, due the inherent nature sociologically between Liberal and Conservative people, these are inherent. If you actually look at like genetics, there are differences between these people and Conservatives are angrier people. They are more prone to anger, they prefer the emotion of anger. Let’s just say like 60/40 or 70/30 it doesn’t mean like 90/10.
Miles O’Brien: And Liberals do not?
Cyrus Massoumi: Again, it’s like a 60/40, I don’t know if it’s like 51/49 bu to a degree Conservatives and I don’t think it’s a small one. To a degree, conservatives thrive off of anger in a way which is unique to them, relative to the American Liberal.
Miles O’Brien: So business is not as good?
Cyrus Massoumi: Liberals like to mock things and Liberals like to laugh at things.
And Trump is easy to mock and to laugh at. So, business is great in that sense like the umbrella moments. Like Trump being a goofball. It’s just a different set of emotions and it doesn’t mean that it’s a hundred zero, there is just different preferences and I would say that it’s — during the election, for example I believe that the profit margins were commensurate across both sides, like each fan was delivering. So we we’re driving the same amount of traffic per fan on the Liberal and Conservative side, but for some reason, the advertising revenue is about 30% lower on Liberals than Conservatives.
Miles O’Brien: Why is that?
Cyrus Massoumi: Let’s say a thousand Conservatives come to your page, you would make $10 CPM, that’s per thousand impressions. And if a thousand Liberals came like let’s say, you’d make 6.50.
Miles O’Brien: Who’s setting that rate and why is that?
Cyrus Massoumi: I think Google and advertising companies.
Miles O’Brien: They don’t spend as much?
Cyrus Massoumi: It has less to do with spending rather than demographic differences or primarily demographic differences. Let’s say, Conservative side is more men, Liberal side is more women. Maybe there’s more car ads showing to the guys and something that which was more to do with a consumer product to the woman. There’s a hundred different ways to come at it, but they’re both basically the same age. And the only thing that I could tell you is definitively different about them is just the slight skew of 20% in sex demographics.
Miles O’Brien: I suspect you want your conservative business back, right?
Cyrus Massoumi: No.
Miles O’Brien: No?
Cyrus Massoumi: This is zero desire.
Miles O’Brien: Why?
Cyrus Massoumi: Because at the end, I hated it.
Miles O’Brien: Lucrative.
Cyrus Massoumi: Sure.
Miles O’Brien: That’s not enough?
Cyrus Massoumi: Well, everybody has got to look at themselves when they shave in the morning, I think I heard that somewhere which is probably why I don’t shave anymore. But it doesn’t make me feel good. And I’ve made a lot of money in my own times and I don’t think that another 20,000 a month on top would. I’m sure it would — it could be nice and whatnot but it’s not worth it.
Miles O’Brien: So, now you’re making that much money now? Well, is business good?
Cyrus Massoumi: I’m in the top 1% of my age like maybe in probably like the quartile percentage of my age. Top quartile percentage of my age.
I was always told it was rude to talk about money that I do love money —
Miles O’Brien: How old are you now?
Cyrus Massoumi: 26.
Miles O’Brien: 26? You’ve made you lot of money for a 26-year-old.
Cyrus Massoumi: I never gave an exact amount.
Miles O’Brien: Well, big amount?
Cyrus Massoumi: It would be at the seven figures. But it wouldn’t be in the high seven figures, it’d be in the low seven figures.
Miles O’Brien: Could you have predicted that when you were selling t-shirts in high school?
Cyrus Massoumi: Gosh, I would have thought it was more honestly because it’s really disappointing how — I feel as if I would have honestly made more money if I had gone some other path.
Miles O’Brien: Like what?
Cyrus Massoumi: I was actually really interested in Blockchain the same year that I got into our Facebook.
Miles O’Brien: Maybe it’s the way to combine the two.
Cyrus Massoumi: Actually there is Blockchain technology which is looking to create a decentralized version of Facebook so that the data is no longer centralized.
It’s called Redcoin for example. So instead of Facebook making all the money, there is decentralized Blockchain versions where the users actually make the advertising revenue and all the privacy is kept local.
Miles O’Brien: And this is an important point, we take almost as a given that Facebook, and Google, and YouTube combined are a monopoly that will live forever but there’s not a lot of Kodak film around that you would worry from there.
Cyrus Massoumi: Ten years ago.
Miles O’Brien: I guess the question is, do you think ultimately people will vote with their feet and move out of Facebook because they’re not getting what they want?
Cyrus Massoumi: Ten years ago, YouTube wasn’t really a thing.
Miles O’Brien: All right.
Cyrus Massoumi: And I think that these companies — look at Google right now. On one side, they’re being sued by feminists because they won’t hire enough women. On the other side, they’re being sued by white men because they fired a white guy for saying that there is biological differences between men and women.
These tech companies have cornered themselves in more ways than they can imagine. I don’t think that they realize in what a bad position they’ve put themselves in when they are so ideological and are doing so many things wrong. And it’s only going to be so long until they overreach because they are at the precipice. Right now, these problems are primarily problems that intellectuals are concerned with. I believe that they’re going to do things which activists will be fine with, but which normal people will have large issues with. For example, there’s a PewDiePie, extremely — he’s like the most popular YouTube personality. But there are activists on the fringes who are calling for him to be banned and calling him a Nazi. And they’ve had many of his videos demonetized. As soon as these activists start to overstep and who knows how far they’ll overstep because no one is never going to stand up to them. They’re paper tigers. These activists, they’re going to send an email and maybe they’ll get in their little black outfits and yell at you. But they haven’t killed anybody, they haven’t done anything bad, but they’re tyrants.
And at some point, some CEO or some famous person and he’s just going to have to flip them the bird and be like, “Okay, get out here because I don’t care, this is my speech rights, so this is what I’m going to do.” I don’t think that a CEO even realizes how much praise he would get if he just said like, “This is a free speech platform and hate speech is not a violent speech,” like hate speech — why would you have a first amendment, if it wasn’t supposed to include hate speech?
You wouldn’t need the first amendment if it was not inclusive of hate speech, there would be no point. It would be like did they write it so that Thomas Jefferson could tell Benjamin Franklin, “Hey bud, my favorite color is blue and I like to fish,” is that what the first amendment is for? No, it’s to say things back then like a black person is less than a human. That’s hate speech, right? Is that not hate speech?
That was in the first amendment, there was no law going, “Oh, did you just say that controversial thing about African people? We’re going to fire you now and no chance of you being in legislature?”
No, of course not. It’s absurd! It’s absurd that fake news and hate speech and this dumb Russia thing are at the forefront of our public discussion. When meanwhile, our country is, in my mind within 20 years at a point where we’re going to reach 20% systemic unemployment and we’re going to have to have a fundamental reconfiguration of our entire social structure.
Miles O’Brien: Cyrus, you have kind of a dark view of where we’re headed in this country.
Cyrus Massoumi: Well, how could we not have 20% systemic unemployment when you have artificial intelligence which would take away the jobs of secretaries and people with repetitive tasks and like once all of the Uber drivers are gone —
Miles O’Brien: No, but I’m thinking a little bit, it’s a dark field. You’re angry, why are you angry?
Cyrus Massoumi: I’m not angry.
Miles O’Brien: No?
Cyrus Massoumi: What am I angry about?
I love my life, I love to cook, I love to walk my dog, I’m working on a garden, I love to do archery, I love going out. My days are filled with laughing, it’s just that a lot of laughing I do is political and I laugh at a lot of liberals. So, yeah, I’m angry at those people but 90% of the time I’m just laughing at them.
Here, I tell you what, I would never go protest a Liberal rally. Whoever you like, I don’t even know how many people you like. There is not one person that you like, who if they were giving a speech outside my door, I’d go protest, okay? But people like, I don’t know if you have kids but let’s say people or what, just younger people. They would come protest pretty much everybody I like. And you’re asking me like Cyrus, “Why are you angry?” I don’t know, why don’t you ask them why they’re angry?
I’m not shutting down speeches, I don’t bust down windows, I don’t burn stuff in Berkley, I’m not Antifa, I don’t wear all black, I don’t pepper spray people. I just have some intellectual views and I’d like to sit across the table with my opponents and argue them. It doesn’t make me an angry person that makes me like a person who is intrigued by thought.
Miles O’Brien: Okay so, do you consider yourself a journalist in any way?
Cyrus Massoumi: Not as an occupation, no.
Miles O’Brien: But you seem to care about journalism in some ways.
Cyrus Massoumi: Yeah, I mean I care about it from, I don’t know, do you consider the CEO of PBS Journalist?
Miles O’Brien: Well, in the context of publishing you might say that.
Cyrus Massoumi: No, I’m asking, do you do you consider Zucker or the CEO, PBS or like Ailes, Roger Ailes.
I’m asking, do you consider the people on the executive side who aren’t?
Miles O’Brien: There’s a very squishy definition of what a journalist is or is not and certainly that’s changing as we speak, right? You might be the —
Cyrus Massoumi: I’ve paid for journalism to be produced. I have never produced a work of journalism.
Miles O’Brien: Are you a publisher for our era? Do you represent a new generation, a new way of thinking about publishing information?
Cyrus Massoumi: Yeah, but I think that this is a leading question because I think that this is most likely going to come with the second question of being like, “What have you published of substance?” To which I would answer, “My goal with my outlet is that once we make more money to hire more people to do more original content.” It’s just that the only reason that we don’t is because financially, that’s just not how the books work.
Miles O’Brien: So, you’re taking somebody else’s work and tweaking it to make it appeal to a specific audiences, it’s as simple as that?
Cyrus Massoumi: Right, like as does everybody else in the media.
Miles O’Brien: Not everybody, there are people who go and do stories. Their people actually go and do the work initially. Somebody has to go out and do the story, the original story, somewhere along the way it gets written by somebody who actually isn’t aggregating or derivative, right?
Cyrus Massoumi: Right, but there are a tremendous amount of outlets which do the aggregation.
Miles O’Brien: I’m not doubting that
Cyrus Massoumi: Right.
Miles O’Brien: And I’m just saying and what I’m saying is that I mean—
Cyrus Massoumi: Yeah, there are people like out, like in the Middle East or you know, like at the White House like gathering the quotes or yeah, whatever.
Miles O’Brien: Well I flew across the country to come here and interview, that’s actually doing the work of journalism, there are people who do this still.
Cyrus Massoumi: Right.
Miles O’Brien: Okay, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Right, because without it, you’d have nothing?
Cyrus Massoumi: No, I completely disagree with you.
Miles O’Brien: What would you have?
Cyrus Massoumi: So, you flew across the country and you have two producers here to interview me. What would happen in my media is that we get on Skype and we will do an interview and it would last an hour and it would cost me like nothing to produce.
So, that’s why like your media is going to die and like mine is going to thrive and I don’t mean that in an insulting way. I just mean like in 10 years you guys won’t be around and I will.
Miles O’Brien: So, what would that be like in 10 years if, you know —
Cyrus Massoumi: We’d actually would have tons of media to watch.
Miles O’Brien: Really? Tell me about what would it be like though?
Cyrus Massoumi: I watch that media all day and it’s like way more valuable to me than like what you guys, I mean not PBS but I don’t even watch cable news anymore.
Miles O’Brien: So, all right, let’s march forward. Midterm election is coming up?
Cyrus Massoumi: You but, you disagree? I mean like —
Miles O’Brien: What disagree on what?
Cyrus Massoumi: Okay, so like, here’s an example. Like, if I’ve been sitting in front of my computer with a 4k camera and you had been sitting in front of in your computer with a 4k camera, like you think that we could have done an hour interview?
Miles O’Brien: Yeah, it wouldn’t have been just as much fun as coming out to meet you though.
Cyrus Massoumi: No, I agree, I completely agree.
Miles O’Brien: At a certain point, if —
Cyrus Massoumi: But I mean like, I think that you are trying to make a point that like without this, like if this couldn’t have happened.
Miles O’Brien: There is good journalism that’s done on the phone or on Skype or any number of other ways, but it’s actually picking up the phone and reaching out to people and talking to people, as opposed to taking someone’s work and putting a headline on it that is going to grab attention. That’s all I’m saying,
Cyrus Massoumi: Right.
Miles O’Brien: There’s a difference there right?
Cyrus Massoumi: But simultaneously, I mean if you look at the stories which I take and do that too, there’s like 50 other outlets which you — I imagine go to like award ceremonies with who do that exact same thing to those stories.
Miles O’Brien: Your defense that other people do it doesn’t really wash. Your defense said, “Well, other people do it, it’s okay” that’s not a very good response, you know that?
Cyrus Massoumi: Well, in this case, it is. I mean if other people murdered, it wouldn’t be a good defense. But in this case, it’s a fine defense. I think that you’re trying to single me out is like a bad actor, when in reality, I’m no worse an actor than some of your compatriots.
Miles O’Brien: No, no, not singling out, you’re representing a group of people that do this. Let’s talk a little bit about the midterm election.
Cyrus Massoumi: Sure.
Miles O’Brien: To what extent do you think junk news will come into play as the election comes near?
Cyrus Massoumi: Nominal.
Miles O’Brien: Why?
Cyrus Massoumi: Because it’s been significantly diminished with the Facebook algorithm.
Miles O’Brien: Just because of that?
Cyrus Massoumi: Well I mean like, I thought we’re talking on the context of Facebook, because I mean that’s like —
Miles O’Brien: No, let’s talk about the big picture, the whole —
Cyrus Massoumi: Well, I mean that’s like — it only propagates itself through social media.
Miles O’Brien: Right, okay. So, it’s over?
Cyrus Massoumi: No, it’s not over, I mean it’s like weeds, there will always be new avenues for marketers. I think that the age of news publishers, basically there being a newsroom and like some big guy with a big desk and like he’s going to be the one that controls what information the public sees.
Like no, that’s like a bygone era like the new age is where marketer is king and that marketer needs good journalists and writers on his team, but marketer is king now. It’s not about editor like whoever sat in that big office in New York Times or Washington Post or whatever.
Miles O’Brien: You’re a marketer?
Cyrus Massoumi: Yeah.
Miles O’Brien: Are you king?
Cyrus Massoumi: Not yet.
Miles O’Brien: You will be?
Cyrus Massoumi: I would love to have a media empire, that is my life’s goal but I have 35 years to go.
Miles O’Brien: So, what’s the next step for you?
Cyrus Massoumi: Before 2020, I would like to make the most attractive liberal outlet on social media. So, like I’m working with other publishers to conjoin our holdings which would give me 15 million liberal fans altogether which would I believe make me the largest holder of liberal Facebook fans.
At that point, I would spend more money on editorial, making original pieces as journalists do must likely. I don’t think we would hire journalists, but we would hire columnists, simply because of the fact that like having people fly around relative. We want to have a breaking news and we want to have columns, opinion columns.
Produce original video which people will find interesting, you know that will go viral and then come to 2020, I’ll either continue to work on that or I’ll sell it and then I’ll move on to the next media projects until I become your next Rupert Murdoch.
Miles O’Brien: Is that where you’re headed?
Cyrus Massoumi: Debatable, I don’t know where —
Miles O’Brien: But, what would this empire look like?
Cyrus Massoumi: It’s online, it’s a video — I mean, right now it’s text and we’ve got images, and we’ve got video and what do we have upcoming? Like we probably have lenses where we’ll probably see stories, so instead of watching like — So like right now, I’m primarily text-based and like we’re moving more and more video.
So I think the next step will be like an optical view of that video, so you’re 3D or whatever in it. You can actually like see around the opinion desk or whatever that you’re looking at. And let’s say, that they take you to like a bombing place like, “Oh, here’s the bombing,” like you can actually look around and be like, “Oh, woah,” you know that kind of thing. Like that’s the next evolution and that will be really cool, right?
So then instead of having your phone where you’re reading stuff on your phone like now, like you’re probably are just going to have that some sort of chip and you can engage with news stories that way. So, like and what comes after that like, I don’t know.
Miles O’Brien: That’s sounds a little more elaborate than taking a wire surface report and dressing up the headline to offer some red meat.
Cyrus Massoumi: Yeah, I mean, you ask me where it was going, you didn’t ask me where it is.
Miles O’Brien: No, I mean getting to there is a whole different thing, right?
Cyrus Massoumi: Well, I mean not necessarily. I mean you’d be surprised how quickly these things can fall into line. I mean, if I make this deal happen and I am the biggest holder of liberal assets like then, it will be fairly easy to move very quickly and have a long track record behind of success. I’ve never failed a project.
Miles O’Brien: So, hardcore conservative might very well be the largest holder of liberal assets online in the social networking world? That’s kind of interesting.
Cyrus Massoumi: I’m not hardcore conservative, how am I hardcore conservative?
Miles O’Brien: Okay, well, you don’t consider yourself conservative. I thought you said you were conservative, no?
Cyrus Massoumi: I’m a cultural libertarian, I’m against empire, I’m against immigration, unlawful immigration, I’m very pro-immigration, I’m against taxes, I don’t like hefty taxes. I believe in taking care of your fellow man, but I’m not sure how much the government should be responsible for that.
It would be difficult for me to call me a conservative when I’m against empire and I think that in most events like I’m not like a “Blue Lives Matter” person, like I oftentimes take the defense of somebody who was shot unlawfully by the police.
Like I would never have hungry children in America, I believe in common goodness. I’m not like some cold-hearted McConnell or Paul Ryan like they are just — I think even McCain’s brain tumor wants to bomb countries. So, no, I’m not a “hardcore conservative”, I’m a freethinker who loves politics and loves media.
Miles O’Brien: And you don’t think it’s at all ironic that a person with that description would be the holder of the most followers on the liberal side of things? It’s interesting.
Cyrus Massoumi: My editor-in-chief is a die-hard Hillary fan and I’ve never told her to take down a story or choose a story.
Miles O’Brien: All right. So, what are the consequences, the big picture consequences to our democracy of all of this?
Cyrus Massoumi: Fake news, Russia, what?
Miles O’Brien: Junk news, fake news, or if you want to call it. What you’ve started has snowballed, correct? And it has consequences.
Cyrus Massoumi: You shouldn’t ask like the guy who designed a nuclear bomb, like what the ethical implications of bombing he set are. I’m not here to talk about ethical consequences, I’m a marketer, I’m an excellent marketer, I would put my marketing skills against anybody. I’m not here to talk about ethics.
I have lots of ethical concerns, I just don’t think that in the context of an interview, I should be a subject matter expert on the ethical implications of information transmission in this age.
Miles O’Brien: Well, you should probably know Robert Oppenheimer had tremendous misgivings about the bomb, he created?
Cyrus Massoumi: I’m not him.
Miles O’Brien: And you have a clear conscience?
Cyrus Massoumi: I don’t have a clear conscience —
Miles O’Brien: You don’t?
Cyrus Massoumi: About previous work that I’ve done like my conservative work. I think that my liberal work is great, I think that some of my conservative work was great.
Miles O’Brien: Thank you very much Cyrus Massoumi. It was a quite a visit and really a fascinating interview. We’ll keep you posted on his efforts to become a media mogul in a new era.
And on that subject, how about helping me achieve a measure of moguldom? I’d love to figure out a way to monetize these podcasts, one way or another… And you can help just by reviewing it, rating it. Maybe then the powers that be will be inclined to help me find an audience.
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I’m Miles O’Brien. This has been Miles To Go. Thanks for listening.
Banner image credit: Cameron Hickey | PBS NewsHour.