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How to Disrupt the Fake News Market

Misinformation online travels through a decentralized system that separates advertisers from the platforms where their content ultimately appears. As fake news becomes an increasingly serious problem, understanding the market for this content is essential to mitigate its impact.

BOSTON – After Russia invaded Ukraine, some young Americans created scam Instagram accounts that shared videos and photos about the unfolding events. Pretending to be journalists on the ground, they attracted millions of followers and profited from the ads placed on their pages before they were taken down. It was not an isolated incident; the opportunity to monetize by misleading is the basis of a massive fake news market.

The explosive growth of fake news is one of the most significant consequences of the internet’s expansion. While creators of fake news have a range of motives – from political objectives to satire – the economic factor cannot be overlooked. According to a 2020 study by the Global Disinformation Index (GDI), European fake news sites earn more than $76 million annually.

Fabricated content on the internet is monetized through a complex, decentralized network that involves actors ranging from major tech companies to small-scale TikTok creators. To understand how the system works, consider an example from the 2016 presidential election in the United States. In the months leading up to the election, young people in the Macedonian village of Veles produced fake news stories promoting the themes and positions of Donald Trump’s campaign. These writers mixed misinformation with real news to persuade readers of their stories’ veracity. They then posted the stories to right-wing websites and generated traffic by linking the stories to social media platforms. As traffic grew, the stories attracted ad placements sold by big tech companies, generating revenue.

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