The coercive logic of fake news

Alexander J. Stewart*, Antonio A. Arechar, David G. Rand, Joshua B. Plotkin

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Working paperPreprint


The spread of misinformation and "fake news" continues to be a major focus of public concern. A great deal of recent research has examined who falls for misinformation and why, and what can be done to make people more discerning consumers of news. Comparatively little work, however, has considered the choices of those who produce misinformation, and how these choices interact with the psychology of news consumers. Here we use game-theoretic models to study the strategic interaction between news publishers and news readers. We show that publishers who seek to spread misinformation can generate high engagement with falsehoods by using strategies that mix true and false stories over time, in such a way that they serve more false stories to more loyal readers. These coercive strategies cause false stories to receive higher reader engagement than true stories - even when readers strictly prefer truth over falsehood. In contrast, publishers who seek to promote engagement with accurate information will use strategies that generate more engagement with true stories than with false stories. We confirm these predictions empirically by examining 1,000 headlines from 20 mainstream and 20 fake news sites, comparing Facebook engagement data with 20,000 perceived accuracy ratings collected in a survey experiment. We then use our model to analyze possible ways to disincentivize fake news, finding that reducing the capacity of news sources to microtarget readers, and increasing readers' level of attention, reduces the efficacy of coercion. Finally, we show that if a publisher incorrectly assumes that readers prefer falsehoods, their resulting publication strategy can manufacture greater engagement with false news - leading to a self-reinforcing cycle of false news promotion.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationNew York, NY
Number of pages46
Publication statusSubmitted - 31 Aug 2021


  • Game theory
  • Misinformation
  • Fake news


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