The Cure for Fake News is Worse than the Disease

Jake Shafer of Politico writes a powerful warning in the midst of the panic over fake news, arguing that the cure for fake news is worse than the disease.

It’s a great article.

Here is some of what he says:

From an economist’s viewpoint, fake news is mostly a demand side problem. If readers weren’t so determined to click sexy headlines that lead them to websites of dubious or unknown reputation, and do it again and again, and often sharing the link, fake news would soon be extinct. But its prevalence indicates that the market is only providing the cheap and stupid thrill some readers desire. Rather than tweaking its algorithms, Facebook might be better off trying to change human nature.

This is what a stupid economist might think — one who still believes the fantasy that human behavior is always rational. That’s crazy talk of course. In reality, we human beings are more reactive than proactive, less able to resist some stimuli in our environment.

The following is an important observation:

Almost every genre of news has been invaded by fake news, but some subject areas appear to be more or less immune to its charms. Fake news about sports or business is extremely rare. Oh, the sports and business pages aren’t fake-free. Hoaxes and baseless rumors get published, but sports and business readers tend to be knowledgeable and discerning about their interests. A fake story about a stock price or a baseball score is quickly resisted by savvy readers who demand that it must be corrected or retracted. They chase down the works of pranksters and hoaxers like white blood cells in pursuit of infectious disease. Fake weather news seems rare, too, for the same reason. The same for fake traffic reports.

So, what makes some information marketplaces subject to fake news and others not so much. This should be a critical target of inquiry for scientists, journalists, and social-media companies… and Truth for Democracy if we can get it off the ground.

Not all fake news fits into this bias pattern, but, in general, the pattern holds. The more outrageous and partisan a fake bundle is, the greater the chance it will be reshared, go viral and break into the mainstream.

Fake news is too important to be left to the Facebook remedy—Mark Zuckerberg is no arbiter of truth.

Of course, fake news is only a small part of the misinformation industrial complex. We need more than a social-media fix.

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