Incentives Leading to Fake News

2 April 2017
2 Apr 2017
3 min read

When I was deciding to start my blog, I was thinking about what I would write about. Certainly I wanted to talk about technology, data science, as well as economics. However, I could have scrapped all of those options and wrote fake news instead.

A true primer on fake news

For those that are unaware, fake news is exactly what it sounds like; what many do not know is that some websites make their entire living from the concept.1 Indeed, one of the most fascinating pieces I read during this election season featured teens in Macedonia who ran hundreds of pro-Trump fake news websites to earn a living.

Ender’s game speaking truth

I first came across the idea of fake news when I was reading Ender’s Game. In the novel, Ender’s brother (Peter) and sister (Valentine) start blogs in order to gain influence and prominence on earth. The quote below is from Sparknotes, showing their initial plan on how they will succeed.

Valentine knows that Peter can find peoples fears and manipulate them and that she can persuade people to do what she wants them to do, and realizes that there is much of Peter in her—they both manipulate in their own ways. He has a plan to take over the world. As he explains to her, he will gain power, one way or another. It is in his nature to control. With her help he can rule over something worthwhile. They begin to use the nets to communicate political ideas, Valentine as the radical Demosthenes and Peter as the moderate Locke. Their ideas begin to spread, and Peter has lots of patience. I find it fascinating that a fiction book from 1985 predicted the playbook of fake news in the internet era. Say what you will, Orson Scott Card predicted this era of fake news perfectly.

Bringing Fake News into the modern era

The reason why I bring this up is that I recently came across this fake news game and shows the perfect fake news playbook. I found the game utterly fascinating in an examination of incentives. It’s a lot easier to spread untrue articles that pray on fear as opposed to more positive articles.2 This results in higher traction, resulting in higher ad revenues. Thus, ad revenue incentives the author to publish fake news.

Incentives rule the world

As an economist, I think a lot about how incentives guide human behavior. Fake news is one example of how incentives are distorting the overall news industry. The problem is only exacerbated when other mainstream media companies are subject to these same pressures to chase ad revenue, and thus give these fake stories attention.

Fake News

To conclude, Fake It to Make It is a fascinating example of how incentives distort the news industry. I think this game is both fun and shows the danger of fake news. It demonstrates how crucial being an educated news consumer is by being aware of the incentives of the news publisher.

  1. Talk about incentives: in the link, the author makes 10-13k a month. Really hard to turn that down. ↩︎

  2. My article on adorable puppies did not go far at all, alas ↩︎

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