Fake news: Can there be too much information?

In today’s world, we receive a crazy amount of information in an instant, via Facebook, Twitter, or any other social media we decide to follow. This situation looks good at first glance as most of the simple economics models assume perfect information and hence, more information should be a good news;  the catch is one should be able to differentiate between the truth and the fake.

With so many people sharing and spreading whatever information they want, one may think that the term “fake news” is relatively new. In reality, however, one can go back in time to notice that “fake news” has been part of mankind since people began to understand how powerful having information is. Extortion and gossip are simple examples. However, the way information is communicated is now transforming the underlying message to such an extent that, in the end, one doesn’t know how authentic it is.

For example, think of the very common children’s game in which one player tells another one a statement, and the receiver has to pass the information to another one, until the end – at this point, the statement is completely different. Transpose this game to a form in which people can just click and share information on Facebook, or resend it on WhatsApp. Information will be complete, but the problem is knowing how faithful it is to the original.

You may think that you are smart enough to differentiate between true and false, but is the rest of your country able to do that? Can everyone filter the large amount of information they receive, day after day, well enough? This is a possible reason for the success of fake news in important events like elections. However, one could argue that there is more in using fake news. By election day, people will only remember the most recent news, no matter who communicated it. Because of this, the political tool is perhaps not to make people believe fake news but instead to undermine the value of information, or of its provider, as Donald Trump did with CNN, the American news provider. The question, then, is rather about the authenticity of the source than information itself.

Beyond the political impact of fake news lies a  social one. Professor Seabright discussed the methods recurrently used by politicians to try to distract people’s attention from the so-called truth. One of them is to multiply the amount of information shared and received, as mentioned above. Will this not lead to a lack of trust in our societies, a basis for all human relations? There are, of course, many angles to consider this question. The first one could be the difficulty to believe in others: as we become more cautious about any piece of information we receive, and increasingly aware of the lies that surround them, we tend to push some people to trust others less, including their closest friends. The second is the amount of time one may dedicate to the “search of the truth”. To illustrate, consider the daily proportion of the time spent on reading information published by others. This increasing allocation of our time to “information consumption”, as opposed to interacting directly with others, can lead us to question how this new habit will potentially affect the social cohesion of our societies.

In the end, information is a tricky matter, due to not only how much of it we receive, but also its degree of truth. The new ways in which information is managed have implications for the economic, political, and social dimensions of our lives. The boom of “fake news”, especially in elections, has influenced the way people think and act. As economists, we can imagine that the increasing amount of information will lead individuals to act more rationally, but will this rationality be formed under fake news?

by José Alfonso Muñoz Alvarado, Joël Bréhin, and Aicha Esaad

With thanks to Professor Paul Seabright for sharing his insights on this topic with us

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