In the age of so­cial me­dia, fake news has be­come a pan­demic

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We are all used to read­ing news cau­tiously be­cause an au­thor’s bi­ases may lead to ex­ag­ger­a­tion.

How­ever, in the 21st cen­tury, we also have to be wary of read­ing en­tirely fab­ri­cated sto­ries. Civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions have cor­rectly sur­mised that fake news poses a grave threat to so­cial co­he­sion and sta­bil­ity, yet the phe­nom­e­non has so far sur­vived at­tempts to elim­i­nate it. What makes fake news so re­sis­tant?

To an­swer this ques­tion, we need to delve into the eco­nom­ics of fake news, which is the topic of a re­cent pa­per by Hunt Al­cott from New York Univer­sity and Matthew Gentzkow from Stan­ford Univer­sity, who looked into why any­one would ben­e­fit from ar­ti­cles that are ei­ther un­in­for­ma­tive or de­cep­tive.

Two fac­tors are at play. Among those who seek news to gain in­for­ma­tion about the world, there is a sus­cep­ti­bil­ity to what psy­chol­o­gists call “con­fir­ma­tion bias”, which is the ten­dency to seek in­for­ma­tion that is con­sis­tent with one’s ex­ist­ing views on a topic. There­fore, a com­mer­cially minded me­dia out­let that knows its read­ers’ at­ti­tudes can po­ten­tially en­hance its rev­enues by oc­ca­sion­ally feed­ing them fab­ri­cated sto­ries that re­in­force their prior con­cep­tions. An ex­am­ple is a mag­a­zine for sup­port­ers of a sports team: if a jour­nal­ist makes up an ar­ti­cle say­ing the team is po­ten­tially go­ing to ac­quire a su­per­star dur­ing an other­wise bor­ing off-sea­son, it might gen­uinely en­ter­tain read­ers.

Fur­ther, ne­far­i­ous ac­tors ben­e­fit from fake news by ex­ploit­ing read­ers’ cog­ni­tive bi­ases. In ad­di­tion to suc­cumb­ing to con­fir­ma­tion bias, peo­ple also suf­fer from lim­ited cog­ni­tion, mean­ing they don’t have the men­tal re­sources to deeply an­a­lyse ev­ery ar­ti­cle they read. In­stead, they rely on things like the au­thor’s rep­u­ta­tion or friends’ rec­om­men­da­tions. This flaw opens a door for sup­pli­ers of fake news to dis­trib­ute false­hoods if they can de­cep­tively get a retweet from a fa­mous per­son. The sup­plier ben­e­fits ei­ther be­cause they have an in­for­ma­tional agenda, such as a po­lit­i­cal can­di­date seek­ing to smear an op­po­nent, or be­cause they make money from the ar­ti­cles be­ing read; and an in­tel­li­gently-writ­ten fab­ri­cated story is more likely to “go vi­ral” than a truth­ful one, since many peo­ple are com­pet­ing to re­port truth­ful events.

These fac­tors have been present for cen­turies; so why is fake news ap­par­ently more of a prob­lem than be­fore?

So­cial me­dia def­i­nitely plays a part. First, it makes the cost of at­tempt­ing fake news very small com­pared to at any other point in his­tory. By “democ­rac­tis­ing” me­dia, so­cial me­dia has also democra­tised the process of gen­er­at­ing and cir­cu­lat­ing false­hoods, mean­ing lots more of it. Sec­ond, so­cial me­dia em­bod­ies a busi­ness model for all news, real and fake, which in­cludes ad­ver­tis­ing and “click”-re­lated rev­enues. Whereas pre­vi­ously, only those seek­ing to sub­vert a sys­tem or op­po­nent might have dab­bled with cre­at­ing fake news, now, a per­son sit­ting at home will do it just for the money, with in­dif­fer­ence to any po­lit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions.

In ad­di­tion, po­lit­i­cal and so­cial po­lar­i­sa­tion have also con­trib­uted. Con­fir­ma­tion bias is par­tially-de­rived from a de­sire to be both cor­rect and right­eous, and in a po­larised so­ci­ety, the value of ex­hibit­ing such at­tributes is higher. When left- and right-wingers op­er­ate in a cul­ture where they reg­u­larly sup­port each other’s pol­icy pro­pos­als (bi­par­ti­san­ship), then de­bates em­pha­sise the op­por­tu­nity to learn from those you dis­agree with, and you do not as­so­ciate chang­ing your mind with be­ing im­moral and/or ig­no­rant.

To­day, sadly, with po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents firmly en­trenched, peo­ple be­come fix­ated on not back­ing down, and on dis­parag­ing those they dis­agree with, boost­ing con­fir­ma­tion bias be­yond the lev­els stem­ming from one’s men­tal lim­i­ta­tions.

So what can be done? One thing that def­i­nitely does not work is try­ing to leg­is­late fake news; there is sim­ply too much of it; once a gov­ern­ment starts to fo­cus on spe­cific cases, it will in­evitably be ac­cused of politi­cis­ing the pun­ish­ment, and of only prose­cut­ing the fake news that chal­lenges its own in­ter­ests. It is also im­prac­ti­cal since in the age of the in­ter­net, what is one to do about fake news that orig­i­nates else­where? If 50,000 of your cit­i­zens un­wit­tingly re-tweet fake news from a rep­utable for­eign out­let, are you go­ing to put them all in prison?

Nat­u­rally, if the tar­get of fake news is an in­di­vid­ual or com­pany, then there ex­ist chan­nels, such as law­suits for slan­der. But what if the fake news is about coun­tries and gov­ern­ments? Or about large groups of peo­ple? For ex­am­ple, if I in­vent a story say­ing: “im­mi­grants are more likely to kill you than non-im­mi­grants”, whose job is it to hold me ac­count­able?

If you search the in­ter­net for so­lu­tions, then you won’t find many com­pelling ones. One pop­u­lar one is “teach­ing peo­ple to spot fake news,” but this suf­fers from a key flaw: the teach­ing ma­te­rial ex­ists, for free, on the in­ter­net, yet peo­ple aren’t re­ally in­ter­ested, prob­a­bly due to la­tent de­mand for fake news. There­fore, a gov­ern­ment man­date is likely to be in­ef­fec­tive.

We may just have to tol­er­ate fake news as an in­evitable corol­lary of so­cial me­dia

Civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions have cor­rectly sur­mised that fake news poses a grave threat to so­cial co­he­sion

Omar Al-Ubay­dli @omare­co­nomics is a re­searcher at Derasat, Bahrain

OMAR AL UBAY­DLI Eco­nom­ics 101

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