“The Merchants of Truth – Inside the News Revolution” by Jill Abramson, Bodley Head,£13.99

Review by Iain Macwhirter

“This Piglet Dressed as a Unicorn Is Making Everyone Cry Rainbows”. That Buzzfeed headline quoted by the former New York Times Executive Editor, Jill Abramson, reveals the essence of news in the social media age. It's personal, it's emotional, it's quirky and it is instantly shareable. Above all, it doesn't matter. The brilliance of the story lies in its very evanescence and absence of real news significance.

It is a philosophy of news that even those lofty pillars of the “legacy media”, The Washington Post and the New York Times, have had to adopt, at least in part, in order to survive. “Native advertising” - branded content posing as news - is another capitulation to the digital media environment. According to Abramson, the Chinese Walls between advertising and editorial have been breached.

The Merchants of Truth is highly readable, massively informed and extremely well argued. Essential reading for everyone who wants to understand not only the media, but how society is changing in the age of the emoji and the meme.

Jonah Peretti, a dyslexic former school teacher, emerges as the improbable Svengali behind the digital news revolution. While working for the Huffington Post in the early noughties he noticed that money could be made from repackaging content from other news sources, like the Times, in ways that ensured his confected stories got precedence on Google rankings above the paper that originally reported them. But search engine optimisation was only the start.

Peretti analysed the occult processes that made certain material go viral – like kittens, listicles and humorous memes. He left Huffington to create Buzzfeed, which scrapped the old news categories, foreign, politics, health etc, and recategorised them as: “OMG”, “WTF”, “Trashy” and “Fail”. Stories would be sliced and diced with a variety of headlines applied to them to make them go viral. One of Buzzfeed's founders, Jack Shepherd, had once rebranded fish as "sea kittens” to get more emotional resonance.

But this went way beyond cat videos. Controversy and anger are more potent engines of viral shareability. Following the shooting of black teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012, Peretti flooded his feed with emotive posts like “10 Reasons Everyone Should Be Furious about Trayvon's Murder”. “Buzzfeed did almost no original reporting on the story”, says Abramson, “it repackaged the information and presented it in a way that emphasised sentiment and celebrity”.

Animal rights and veganism too have high virality, or “social lift” thanks to their zealous online activists. Peretti once said: “The web is ruled by maniacs, and content is more viral if people fully express their personality disorders”. Buzzfeed began to target the “super sharers” - the “histrionic/narcissistic” ones. Get into these people's heads, and they will do the heavy lifting for you, leaving Buzzfeed, or increasingly Facebook, to count the cash generated by the manic sharing of this content.

Abramson believes worthwhile campaigns like #metoo and Black Lives Matter benefited from Buzzfeed's viral messaging, amplified by Facebook's algorithms. But this pivot to emotion also benefited less liberal voices. Not surprisingly, Fake News, proved to be highly successful at generating the clicks and shares that could be monetized. No one does anger better than the Alt Right.

Allowing machine learning to exploit and manipulate our emotions in this way is a hugely dangerous experiment. We are like sheep being herded into echo chambers and fed with material, curated by Facebook, that confirm our prejudices rather than challenging them. Much of this has already been brought to light through scandals like Cambridge Analytica and Facebook's surveillance capitalism. But Abramson makes clear just how profoundly manipulative and cynical the internet journalism pioneered by Buzzfeed and its video equivalent Vice really is. In essence, content doesn't matter, people don't matter – it's all about exploiting psychological weaknesses.

This is a big book that covers Abramson's own sacking from the New York Times for being, as she tells it, a “pushy woman”. She traces, in excruciating detail, the abject failure of The Washington Post and the New York Times to understand the new media. The Post, she reports, actually had an opportunity to buy into Facebook early on, but let it slip by. The paper was eventually rescued by Amazon's Jeff Bezos, who has applied many of Buzzfeed's techniques.

The New York Times was saved by Donald Trump. Since his election the paper has had a boom in subscriptions from people horrified by his behaviour. But the Times has had to change and not in a good way, according to Abramson. It too has resorted to clickbait stories about Yoga with Goats and to shameless native advertising.

Most digital journalists loathe The Donald, but he is their Frankenstein monster. Everyone has strong views about Trump, which they love to share. His speeches are essentially fake news, and his appeal to his supporters is emotional rather than intellectual. In recent years, Buzzfeed has sought to improve its image by investing in real journalism. Its biggest scoop was publishing the infamous Steele dossier, containing allegations about the President’s bizarre bedroom antics.

The Buzzfeed approach to news was dictated largely by the dynamics of Facebook's newsfeed. Only through viral sharing by millions of Facebook users could internet news sites gain enough clicks to survive financially. In this sense, they connived – along with the legacy media – in their own plagiarism, allowing Facebook and Google to take their content and huge advertising dollars without paying a cent.

This devil's bargain has not ended well for Buzzfeed. Facebook altered its algorithms recently to reduce the presence of news in its feed and wiped out much of the traffic upon which organisations like Buzzfeed had come to rely. It has had to shed 1000 jobs worldwide and its Vice is suffering acute financial pressures.

Journalism is expensive. At least Buzzfeed does some proper journalism; Facebook and Google do nothing at all except make money by recycling it. The lesson of this painful decade is that the internet behemoths have become anti-social and predatory monopolies, facilitating the corruption of our digital world. The good guys have gone bad.