Happy Hour for Fake News!

Three Questions to Vincent Fella Hendricks, Professor, Director Center for Information and Bubble Studies, University of Copenhagen

Vincent Fella Hendricks is the co-author, with Mads Vestergaard, of the book Fake News – Når virkeligheden taber (Danish for “When Reality Loses Out”),  Netopia talked to him about his research findings in this red hot topic.

We used to believe the internet would bring democracy. Now we talk about fake news and intervention in elections. What happened?

The unregulated information and news market in the digital age is like the market fundamentalism ruling the financial markets of the 00s. Assets are not immediately monetary assets or products. The prime asset relentlessly pursued in the age of information is attention as Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon prophetically announced back in 1971: “…in an information-rich world, the wealth of information means a dearth of something else: a scarcity of whatever it is that information consumes. What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients.”

Unregulated information and news market in the digital age is like the market fundamentalism

First, realize that attention online is not distributed in accordance with a normal distribution where the bulk of us may allocate the same amount of attention in other people and users. Attention online follows a power law in which a few big players have more or less all the attention and everybody else have to fight for what is left out in the tail of the power distribution. A democratising function of the internet would only be the case if attention was more even distributed among its users, but it is not. In fact, studies tend to show that social media may actually enforce the positions of the ones who are already powerful¹ (Broersma, 2013). The ones who are big get even bigger in an attention economics – like when Facebook bought Instagram, while Google bought YouTube. It’s like Thomas Piketty’s Capital: 1% of the world’s population have 50% of the world wealth, and then the remaining 99% will have to fight for the remaining 50%. The same goes for attention – that’s not necessarily stimulating democracy.

What is viral is not necessarily true and what is true is not necessarily viral.

Second, think of the business model of social media: (1) allocate people’s attention using information; (2) the consumption of information generates traffic; (3) traffic may be converted to money, power, influence, status or advertising possibilities. As a user you do not pay for your social media profile. But if you do not pay, you are the product, while advertisers are the true customers. Social media sells users’ attention to advertisers that are the ones paying. Hence you may speculate on what sort of information people are willing to consume. There is a market for information which, while not being necessarily true information, captures a significant level of attention. However, what is viral is not necessarily true and what is true is not necessarily viral.

There is a market for fake news indeed. At least three reasons may be given for entering this market: (a) for the fun of it/trolling; (b) propaganda/power struggles; (c) web traffic/money. The issuing parties of fake news want to capture people’s attention and work on the advertisers’ commission. The wider your group of information preys is, by a noisy and spectacular but not necessarily true news story, the more you may jack up the prices for advertising online for whatever the reason: for fun, political influence or cash money.

Just as subprime could survive for quite some time on deregulated financial markets, so can fake news live and prosper

Fake news is as poor an information product as subprime loans were poor financial products. But just as subprime could survive for quite some time on deregulated financial markets, so can fake news live and prosper in terms of attention in a non-regulated information market. There is currently no ordinance being appraised that requires online information to be true. The information market does not necessarily reach a natural equilibrium where only facts will thrive and falsehoods will get weeded out as the efficient market hypothesis would like to assume. And there we have it: “Happy Hour for fake news!”

What are the different kinds of false information that you have defined in your research?

In our recent book Fake News: When Reality Loses Out, Mads Vestergaard and I developed the following Information Quality Typology:

Zone 1 – True Statements – Verified facts
Zone 2 – Doctored statements – Framing, cherry-picking etc
Undocumented statements – Rumours (maybe true, maybe false)
Zone 3 – Lies – False statements, intended in contradiction with facts
“Bullshit” – Diversion, dilution of distinction between true and false
Fake News – “Bullshit” statements simulating journalism and truthfulness

What is the responsibility of internet platforms?

The social media outlets and internet platforms are curators of information, and they have editorial standards already, although how many spend time reading the community standards of, say, Facebook while signing up for a profile? Google heavily edits the search results conveyed to users.

Social media outlets and internet platforms are curators of information, and they have editorial standards already

Now, the big purveyors of online information can now do the same as big news outlet from CNN to BBC over Frankfurter Allgemeine. Question: Should the market for information and news be regulated, say by imposing principles of excellence in journalism, TV and communication laws and best practice demands on social media outlets to protect users and community – in part recently suggested by the EU?

Fake News – Når virkeligheden taber is published in Danish by Gyldendal, Copenhagen 2017. Translations to English, German and Spanish are on the way.

As a true academic, professor Hendricks of course provided the sources he uses. Here they are:

¹ Broersma, M. & Graham, T. (2013). ”Twitter as a New Source”, Journalism Practice, 7(4): pp. 446–464

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  1. “Power law”, in a sense, could also apply to the news feed where the most liked/interacted with posts are pushed to the top and presented to the user….rather than an equal stream of all posts. Granted a twitter stream would be very busy if all tweets were shown….

  2. […] Happy Hour for Fake News / Interview / Vincent F. Hendricks, Netopia.eu, 02.10.2017 […]

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