🌒 The Great Blurring; Guest Columnist Ross Phernetton; George The Poet° #2

A weekly-ish newsletter about seeing clearly in an age of reality distortion — e.g. misinformation, perception control, superhuman manipulation, merchants of doubt, truth decay, deepfakes, dark ads, propaganda, self-delusion, and the collapse of our information ecosystem.

(What’s this? Read on…)

We are eyeballs-deep in the reality distortion that I call The Great Blurring. Everything is blurring together online. Facts and opinions. Humans and bots. Ads and news. As the futurists of South Park predicted in 2015:

The ads have taken the next step in their evolution. They have taken human form. Ads are among us, they could be your friend, your gardener. The ads are trying to wipe us out. The question is ... how?

RDF°’s first-ever guest columnist is a 25-year advertising veteran, a creative director, and former colleague. He will provocatively explain how he sees through the fogand how you can too.


By Ross Phernetton

If you work in advertising, as I do, you’ve taken the red pill. You see that everything is an ad. Every subject line, headline and byline. Every book cover, button click and brag post. There is very little difference between the post that pitches how happy your kids are and the post that pitches how happy your kids will be if you take them to Disney World. 

When everything is an ad, everything is equal. Uncle Joe has as much authority as CNN. Exploiting this, was Russia’s one weird trick. And Putin didn’t have to poison the fruit of our democracy in order to subvert our democracy, like some ironic Jiu Jitsu. It was already poisoned by two phenomena.

The first is called Face-Value Projection. People on Facebook want to be taken at face value, so they fool themselves into taking everything at face value. It makes for less cognitive dissonance. And they’re usually posting to convince themselves of something as much as anyone else. People are getting high on their own supply.

The second phenomenon is The Great Blurring. Very recently, news became social content, and social content became advertising, and advertising became news. Their form, their function and the process by which they are targeted are all the same. Everything is an ad, including Aunt Betty.

It’s counterintuitive, but the antidote to reality distortion is to think like an ad person. For advertising creative directors and copywriters, critical thinking and a sense of irony are intuitive skills that develop over time. While most people watch the cave wall, we’re casting the shadows.

You may ask, “Aren’t journalists better at seeing the truth than ad copywriters?” They’re often not, for two simple reasons. Journalists believe in objectivity and free will. Copywriters know these are both an illusion. Copywriters aren’t just students of social science; they’re practitioners of it. Malcolm Gladwell knows this. It’s why he’s a better storyteller than journalist, and it explains why he has always wanted to write ads.

Teaching intuition isn’t easy, but here’s one method for getting to the mindset of an ad person. Question everything. The Five Ws may work for  journalism. But you can decode any communication with three different interrogatives: Whose, Which and How.

Whose money are they playing with?

In other words: who’s behind it, and what’s their agenda?

Which Fear of Loss is in play?

There are six fears of loss: Connection, Order, Status, Meaning, Influence, Control (COSMIC).

How are my biases being played?

This requires some self awareness. 

That’s it. You could try to identify all the rhetorical tricks and fallacies being employed, like straw men and false flags. But this is a lot easier and uses social thinking, not analytical thinking.

People in advertising aren’t bothered by the paradox of our craft being used by Putin and Disney. It’s all Fantasyland or Frontierland. The real difference is between knowing you’re in a theme park, and not knowing. In this pandemic of an election year—we need more people to see the theme park for what it is, all ads. But how? Don’t hate me for saying this, but probably an ad campaign.

Ross Phernetton is a creative director, strategist and writer. He lives in Minneapolis, pays for his news and has the highest regard for journalists. They need our protection.

To get RDF° Report in your inbox:


A Column of Oriental Travelers Scattered by a Dust Storm / William West / Met

We can’t understand a pandemic by simply studying a virus under a microscope. We must also study how it spreads and mutates. 

Similarly, disinformation is more than just an article with bad grammar from a site with blink tags. Disinfo spreads. Mutates. And we, the people, are its carriers. It’s a process. One that bad actors understand all too well.

Lie-laundering: Consider this — money-laundering hides the dirty origins of cash and makes the cash legit. Lie-laundering hides the dirty origins of a lie and makes the lie legit.

The amazing Bellingcat meticulously details how a “loose, headless network of media personalities and news websites has developed a fairly robust strategy for spreading coronavirus lies on social media — while also evading [social media] bans.”

  • Misinfo appears courtesy of a twitter troll or rinky-dink website.

  • The misinfo tumbles through the interwebs, being quoted by increasingly more “legit” publications and twitter personalities. 

  • The chorus makes the story seem credible.

  • Outright falsehoods can get banned by the social media platforms.  However, saying that “many people claim <insert falsehood here>” is not technically untrue, and can slip past the platform’s policies.

(support Bellingcat on Patreon)


The year is 2028.

The new best seller in the Apple AR Glasses app store: FaceReader. The app scans the behavior of whomever is talking to you — and tells you if they are anxious. Or lying. Or attracted to you.

There is no pandemic, but, for some reason, there’s a run on full-face masks.

(Possibly possible? A Japanese startup’s AI cameras can supposedly detect suspicious shoplifters before they shoplift, and the race to find the ultimate lie detector is on.)


Thanks for being with us for Issue #2.

Please hit the ♡ button at the top of the post. Share this with two friends and a crazy uncle.

(Oh, and in case you were wondering, the ZIK ZAK gif at the top is from an 80s TV show that foretold the weaponization of information overload.)

With gratitude,

— Upendra

Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible. — H.H. the Dalai Lama XIV

P.S. If you aren’t a subscriber yet: