Fake News is an attention economy problem

A common theme of this blog is that history repeats itself. There are some fundamental dynamics of information that are innate to the internet, and most companies coast those trends. There are occasional shifts; like the smartphone with its always-on-connectivity and sensors but things more or less follow certain trends.

The recent rise of “fake news”, or cheap information that plagues everywhere that Facebook, and to a smaller degree Google, is dealing with has precedents and can be explained (and predicted, as many did) basic look at the economies of attention, which is the another theme of this blog. Being somewhat reductionist, the problem can be view as a spam issue, on steroids. I admit the integrity of presidential elections is a more serious problem than loss off productivity but a more sterile approach might help come to some immediate solutions.

Facebook might be the punching bag these days for everyone, especially journalists, but Google had its fair share of spam issues. Not too long ago, at around 2009, the Mountain View company was fighting a fierce war against what was then called “content farms”. These companies would basically figure out the trending Google searches, create extremely cheap content, real fast, and do some SEO magic, and get traffic from Google, against which you can sell ads. As long as your cost of production was lower than your revenue from ads, you were golden.

This was a big, lucrative business. The biggest player in this game, aptly named Demand Media was a billion dollar public company. This Wired feature on the the company is full of amazing anecdotes. The company ran many, many websites targeted at virtually any vertical, including one called Livestrong, a franchise of the none other than Lance Armstrong.

Google, soon woke up to the danger, and issued an update to its “algorithm”, called the Panda update and effectively kneecapped the entire industry. Today we are looking to hear from Facebook CSO Alex Stamos, but Matt Cutts of Google was all the rage back then.

Facebook even had its fair share of “spam” problems, and while company might seem like paralyzed in an effort to satisfy both sides, it wasn’t always that way either. Zynga figured out the dynamics of News Feed, as well as the psychological rewarding mechanisms of unsuspecting “gamers” and built a billion dollar business around it. In the meantime, though Zynga and its flagship FarmVille game became synonymous with spam. When Facebook woke up to the problem, and took action, the resulting tweaks nearly killed Zynga too. The gaming company is still around, as a public company, but it’s struggling to even pay for its HQ. Same pattern also happened with companies like Upworthy, and many other “viral” news sources.

As an outsider, it’s not clear how much of an existential crisis this is for Facebook. Google’s struggles with content farms was an existential risk; users losing trust in their search engine can jump ship to Bing or any other. Facebook users are locked in to the platform, and by the virtue of social networks, as more users join, its gets harder for next user to leave. The social network is more or less the world’s biggest address book for many, and the filter bubbles really make the problem of fake news only one someone else can diagnose for you, not unlike a mental disorder. Some like Sam Biddle even argue inherently benefits from our endless craving of drama. Russian interference in US elections propelled the problem to mainstream media, but that was unintentional.

Moreover, the numbers itself make it a challenge. unlike a few content farms (or virtual farms, in case of Zynga) that can be easily identified, for Facebook, there are 5 million advertisers who can push any sort of content to users’ news feeds. Still, it doesn’t seem like an unmanageable number. There are many business that have similar number of customers, who seem to keep a handle on them.

It wouldn’t be great for Facebook’s bottom line to have to increase the cost per customer, but it is probably the right approach for the long term. The media and tech analyst Ben Thompson argues the same in his column. (Subscription might be required) Facebook flew past its competitors partly by being the saner, more refined, Ivy-grad built and approved alternative. Google probably doesn’t miss revenue it used to earned from the content farms, and Facebook certainly doesn’t miss Upworthy. Longer term vision would help. A company that’s building solar powered planes that communicate each other via gyroscopically stabilized lasers should be able to solve some spam issues.

As a sidetone, it’s worth mentioning the opposite examples. These cheap SEO or virality games do not always end badly for companies. For each Demand Media, there’s a “success” story like Business Insider, and the like. The journalistic pasts of these organizations are questionable. Both, among others, have built their businesses on borrowing content from other organizations, having fewer and more junior staff, but really playing the SEO game better than anyone. Similarly, Buzzfeed is a now serious journalistic powerhouse now but the company was decidedly built on subsidizing actual journalism off of more viral, bite-sized content.

The fact the solutions will emerge only points to the chronic nature of the problem, however.  Facebook, Google, or any platform can solve the spam problem, given enough resources and focus. An economy that’s based on commodified attention poses not just passing economic challenges to tech behemoths, but existential risks for a regime that’s somewhat predicated on an educated public. The history of attention economy is the subject of Tim Wu’s excellent book Attention Merchants, which I can’t recommend highly enough.

When people’s attention can be sold to the highest bidder, the producers with the lowest fixed costs will rule the world. A few years ago, it was Demand Media, then it was Zynga, then Upworthy and Huffington Post, and today it’s everyone. As costs of production goes down (which is a good thing), the challenge will get harder. Moreover, as targeting of not just ads, but any content, becomes more precise, yet more opaque, the shared context that holds a society together will inevitably decay.

It might be a libertarian pipe dream to live free of interference from anyone, in one’s own digital and physical cocoon, but that seems untenable in the long run for a liberal democracy. At some point, we will have to elevate our rights to our information laid down in a more robust fashion, instead of relying on the good will of a few people living in California. Spam, as a risk to productivity, was solved by better technology, as well as regulation that required transparency to widely distributed emails. But most importantly, it got solved after we acknowledged the problem, saw the long term risks, and attacked it at its mechanics.

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