Contributor, The Volokh Conspiracy

Recent events such as the 2016 election and growing concern over the spread of “fake news” have focused attention on the problem of political disinformation online. The Pew Research Center recently surveyed over 1100 information experts on the following question:

In the next 10 years, will trusted methods emerge to block false narratives and allow the most accurate information to prevail in the overall information ecosystem? Or will the quality and veracity of information online deteriorate due to the spread of unreliable, sometimes even dangerous, socially destabilizing ideas?

The experts were almost equally divided between those who believe that the situation will improve over the next decade (49%) and those who think it will get worse (51%). Pew summarizes the optimists’ and pessimists’ respective takes as follows:

[T]he 51% of these experts who expect things will not improve generally cited two reasons:

The fake news ecosystem preys on some of our deepest human instincts: Respondents said humans’ primal quest for success and power – their “survival” instinct – will continue to degrade the online information environment in the next decade. They predicted that manipulative actors will use new digital tools to take advantage of humans’ inbred preference for comfort and convenience and their craving for the answers they find in reinforcing echo chambers.

Our brains are not wired to contend with the pace of technological change: These respondents said the rising speed, reach and efficiencies of the internet and emerging online applications will magnify these human tendencies and that technology-based solutions will not be able to overcome them. They predicted a future information landscape in which fake information crowds out reliable information. Some even foresaw a world in which widespread information scams and mass manipulation cause broad swathes of public to simply give up on being informed participants in civic life.

The 49% of these experts who expect things to improve generally inverted that reasoning:

Technology can help fix these problems: These more hopeful experts said the rising speed, reach and efficiencies of the internet, apps and platforms can be harnessed to rein in fake news and misinformation campaigns. Some predicted better methods will arise to create and promote trusted, fact-based news sources.

It is also human nature to come together and fix problems: The hopeful experts in this canvassing took the view that people have always adapted to change and that this current wave of challenges will also be overcome. They noted that misinformation and bad actors have always existed but have eventually been marginalized by smart people and processes. They expect well-meaning actors will work together to find ways to enhance the information environment. They also believe better information literacy among citizens will enable people to judge the veracity of material content and eventually raise the tone of discourse.

Experts on both sides make some good points. But both also ignore a glaring issue: why is political discourse online so much worse than our use of online information on the vast range of other issues?

Outside the realm of politics, few would deny that the benefits of online information flows vastly outweigh their costs. The internet has enabled people to access an incredible range of better and cheaper goods and services compared to what existed before. Internet-based businesses such as Uber and AirBnb even allow us to entrust our travel, comfort, and safety to complete strangers secure in the knowledge that we are likely to get better and cheaper service than through their more conventional competitors.

There is no shortage of nonpolitical con artists and hucksters online. But most internet consumers have learned to avoid them, or at least minimize the risk.

By contrast, we do a much worse job of minimizing the risk posed by political deception and disinformation. If you get an e-mail from a wealthy heiress who offers to pay you a million dollars, or see a website that promises to increase your sexual potency at a bargain-basement price, you are likely to be highly skeptical. By contrast, many people don’t apply anything like the same degree of common-sense scrutiny to political snake oil – especially when it conforms to their preexisting views. Politicians and activists who peddle dubious conspiracy theories, promise to give you something for nothing, and otherwise spread disinformation, often gain a wide following. Donald Trump’s large-scale use of lies and deception is just an extreme case of a far more widespread tactic, also successfully used by more conventional candidates and political movements.

The problem here has less to do with the specifics of the internet and more with the way we process political information. In most private-sector contexts, we have strong incentives to guard against deception and keep wishful thinking under control. If you believe the promises of the self-proclaimed Saudi prince who e-mails to say he will send you a million dollars tomorrow if only you will forward him a much smaller sum today, you will probably lose your money. That leads most people to be duly skeptical of such offers, even if they badly want to believe in the possibility of getting rick quickly with little effort.

By contrast, if you find a website or Twitter feed that promises we can promote social justice or make America great again by supporting some dubious candidate or public policy, incentives for skepticism are much weaker. If you get taken in and end up with false political beliefs that lead you to vote for the “wrong” candidate on election day, the chance that your vote will make a difference to the outcome is infinitesimally small. And even if your mistaken vote does somehow end up being decisive, most of the cost of the error will fall on the rest of society, not you or your family.

As a result, most voters have strong incentives to be “rationally ignorant” about politics, often remaining unaware of even very basic information. They also tend to a poor job of evaluating what they do learn – including believing extremely dubious claims that reinforce their preexisting views, while ignoring strong evidence that cuts the other way.

In most nonpolitical transactions online, we stand to pay a high price for ignorance and credulity. That does not mean we completely avoid bias and error. But it does greatly reduce it. When it comes to politics, by contrast, we can indulge our prejudices at little personal cost.

But, while it does not matter much if any one voter is ignorant, credulous, or biased in her evaluation of information, the situation is very much otherwise when a high percentage of the electorate as a whole acts that way. Individually rational behavior leads to dangerous collective outcomes.

Political elites are well aware of voter ignorance and bias, and have strong incentives to exploit it. Most do just that. Those unwilling to do so are at a disadvantage relative to their more unscrupulous rivals, and therefore less likely to win office, or stay in power for very long if they manage to do so.

The problem here long predates the internet. While this new technology does have some features that exacerbate the danger, the continuity of political ignorance and manipulation over time is more impressive than any seeming disjunction. The same kind of political deception that is now common online was also spread by previous information technologies. The types of concerns that critics today have about “fake news” online were also raised about the deceptions of “yellow journalism” in the nineteenth century, and radio and television programs in the twentieth. It is not even clear that politics in the age of the internet is significantly worse than in previous technological eras. The spread of fascism, communism, and racism – all of which involved considerable manipulation and deception at least as great as those we now see – occurred in the age of print and broadcast media.

Ultimately, both the optimists and the pessimists in the Pew survey are correct in their own way. The optimists are surely right to think that we will develop new and better ways to screen and evaluate online information. But at least when it comes to political knowledge, the pessimists are right to think that most people won’t make much effort to improve the quality of the information they consume – or the quality of their own evaluation of that data.

If we want to reduce the dangers of political ignorance and deception, we should focus less on the details of technology and more on the structure of incentives we have created for voters and political elites. The painful truth about online fake news is that it is just a new symptom of a longstanding problem.