An Equation Explaining Fake News: Plus Three Ways To Stop The Vicious Cycle

By Lori Cameron and Michael Martinez
Published 02/08/2018
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Fake news is a vicious circle, and the speed with which it is disseminated on social media is breath-taking. You, as a reader, can have a reinforcing effect on the creators and arbiters of disinformation.

Now, an equation explains our fake news ecosystem, and the authors of this formula have proposed three solutions to end it all.

“Most frauds associated with fake content on social networking websites are not high-tech crimes requiring ‘super-hacker’ skills. Instead, the ‘attackers’ employ social engineering and deception methods,” say Nir Kshetri of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and Jeffrey Voas, a computer scientist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and IEEE Fellow. They are the authors of “The Economics of ‘Fake News’” in IT Professional. (login may be required for full text)

So, just about anyone can do it. The key is analyzing the benefits, costs, and risks in producing fake news. Using well-known economic analysis, Kshetri and Voas developed a formula that analyzes whether or not producing fake news is worth it.

Economic equation for fake news creation
An equation: Analyzing the Value of Fake News.

Put simply, fraudsters will create fake news if the monetary and psychological benefits outweigh the costs and legal risks.

A journey into the fake news equation of Mb + Pb > Ic + O1c + Pc + (O2c πarr πcon): It begins in Macedonia

The variables, depicted in the equation chart above, correspond with actual events surrounding the fake news scandal and the U.S. 2016 presidential election, according to research by Kshetri and Voas.

Let’s say there’s an ambitious teenager in Macedonia or Georgia—among the countries that make most of the fake news—who believes he can make easy money with sham content.

So the Macedonian teenager collects $16,000 from two pro-Trump websites.

Meanwhile, another fake-news writer receives $10,000 a month from Google AdSense by posting to Facebook.

Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg on fake news
Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg comments about fake news: “While some hoaxes can be completely debunked, a greater amount of content, including from mainstream sources, often gets the basic idea right but some details wrong or omitted. An even greater volume of stories express opinions that many will disagree with and flag as incorrect even when factual.”

This is where the equation begins. It’s the monetary benefits of engaging in frauds involving fake news—or the “Mb”—of the equation Mb + Pb > Ic + O1c + Pc + (O2c πarr πcon).

A Georgian joins the fake news equation

Meanwhile, a fraudster in Georgia jumps into the fray—for different reasons. The Georgian runs fake stories focuses on attracting pro-Trump supporters by noting he personally prefers Trump.

This is the psychological, or noneconomical, benefit of joining the fake news bandwagon, or the Pb of the equation.

Working at an efficient digital pace

How hard can this work be? Not very. Fake news creators can merely copy and paste from other websites. So, it’s a minimal investment of time and resources. The phony content makers don’t require you readers to stay on a page for a long time. All they need is for you to click.

This is the direct investment costs of the equation, or the Ic.

Fake news creators believe no harm, no foul

The makers of  fake news in Georgia say money motivates them, according to a recent New York Times account. They feel no guilt or shame. In fact, they assert no one gets physically hurt.

This is the psychological cost of engaging in frauds involving fake news, or the Pc of the equation.

Easy cash in hard times

Making fake news can be an economic boon in places like Macedonia where the employment rate is more than 20 percent. Even if a Macedonian does have a job, the average monthly salary is $371. So, for digitally savvy Millennials in dire straights, creating fake content for cash is extremely attractive.

This is the opportunity cost of engaging in the creation and management of fake news, or the O1c.

The kicker: Some countries don’t police fake news

At the end of the equation — the part that says O2c πarr πcon — is the chance for jail time. To be more precise, they are the monetary opportunity costs of conviction, the probability of arrest, and the probability of conviction. That chance is “slim to zero” in countries such as Macedonia or Georgia.

In short, the fake news creators can post with impunity.

Breaking the Circle

Fake news creators, gullible consumers, and arbiters of disinformation reinforce each other. This leads to a fake news ecosystem that Kshetri and Voas say needs to be broken up.

The vicious circle of fake-news creation
The vicious circle of fake-news creation. Socio-political and economic factors make fake news creation an attractive economic option for young people in some parts of the world. The general population’s consumption of social media for news has increased, and the activities of various arbiters do not discourage fake news creation.

So, what can be done to break the circle and remove the cost-benefit incentive?

Kshetri and Voas offer a three-fold solution:

  • First, fight it with artificial intelligence and expanded human review processes. Social media networks can discourage fake news creation by banning advertisers or pages engaged in “cloaking”—through which fake content creators disguise the true destination or content of a post. After significant media coverage of fake news, Google and Facebook stopped advertising relationships with fake news sites—possibly decreasing financial incentives for writing fake news.
  • Second, debunk it. Started by professors and journalists from Kiev Mohyla University, “StopFake News” provides a weekly overview of disinformation and misinformation about the Ukraine from Russian media.
  • Third, take your business elsewhere. Customers can put pressure on businesses to fight fake news as a part of corporate social responsibility.

All of these solutions are being implemented to some degree but not nearly enough, say the authors.

“Public awareness and education campaigns might be able to help, but realize that the pace of information being pushed out to the public is overwhelming. For example, CNN and other major outlets offer ‘breaking news’ constantly—who can keep up? The bottom line: anti-fake news approaches are not yet adequate,” conclude Kshetri and Voas.


Related research on fake news and social media in the Computer Society Digital Library:

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