Fake news captures attention and is corrosive. Like many similar social problems online, it is a symptom of surveillance capitalism. Surveillance capitalism explains the economic incentives that drive media production and distribution on internet platforms like Facebook. The business model used by internet platforms relies on collecting data and using that data to create profiles of users to predict their interests and behavior.
This allows Facebook to serve tailored advertisements to users. It’s this matching of advertisements to people that makes Facebook incredibly valuable to advertisers — an advertisement that more closely matches someone’s interest is more likely to end in a sale — and companies are willing to pay top dollar for this.
The economic incentives that push Facebook to collect as much user data as possible also explain why we should not rely on Facebook to stem the tide of fake news. Facebook does not have a financial stake in dispassionately disseminating true or unbiased information. Instead, it has a financial incentive to increase traffic on the platform (more eyeballs to view ads) and increase user participation through cheap, data-generating behavior, such as superficial “Likes” and shares that Facebook can then analyze to better modeland predict user behavior.
Shoshana Zuboff writes that “demanding privacy from surveillance capitalists [like Facebook] ... is like asking Henry Ford to make each Model T by hand.” Similarly, to the extent that fake news enables continued surveillance and tracking by Facebook, we should not expect the company to be interested in genuine solutions that might threaten its business model.
Fake news may be only a symptom of a deeper set of political economy issues, but studying the phenomenon usefully highlights two distinct types of more general social problems that plague networked media and require different interventions.