The distorting effects of producer strategies: why engagement does not reveal consumer preferences for misinformation

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

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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A great deal of empirical research has examined who falls for misinformation and why. Here, we introduce a formal game-theoretic model of engagement with news stories that captures the strategic interplay between (mis)information consumers and producers. A key insight from the model is that observed patterns of engagement do not necessarily reflect the preferences of consumers. This is because producers seeking to promote misinformation can use strategies that lead moderately inattentive readers to engage more with false stories than true ones—even when readers prefer more accurate over less accurate information. We then empirically test people’s preferences for accuracy in the news. In three studies, we find that people strongly prefer to click and share news they perceive as more accurate—both in a general population sample, and in a sample of users recruited through Twitter who had actually shared links to misinformation sites online. Despite this preference for accurate news—and consistent with the predictions of our model—we find markedly different engagement patterns for articles from misinformation versus mainstream news sites. Using 1,000 headlines from 20 misinformation and 20 mainstream news sites, we compare Facebook engagement data with 20,000 accuracy ratings collected in a survey experiment. Engagement with a headline is negatively correlated with perceived accuracy for misinformation sites, but positively correlated with perceived accuracy for mainstream sites. Taken together, these theoretical and empirical results suggest that consumer preferences cannot be straightforwardly inferred from empirical patterns of engagement.
Original languageEnglish
Article numbere2315195121
Number of pages10
JournalProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Issue number10
Early online date27 Feb 2024
Publication statusPublished - 5 Mar 2024


  • Misinformation
  • Game theory
  • Information ecosystems
  • Online behavior


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