Fake news as a business model is not new; it is as old as news itself. In the long history of fake news, propaganda for political gain is the common driver, but the motivation in the 2016 US election was not necessarily so.

Many of the creators, based on the study conducted by Stanford University’s Hunt Allcott and Matthew Gentzkow on Social Media and Fake News in 2016 Election, showed that motivation was on the path to quick dollars by distributing emotionally engendered content and gaining an audience through social media that would view websites loaded with advertising.

One historical example of fake news with profit as the motivation was the great moon hoax published and circulated by the New York Sun in 1835 and the spaghetti-tree hoax of BBC in 1957.

Benjamin Franklin’s fake newspaper in 1782 was nothing but propaganda to drum up British sympathy for the American Revolutionary cause.

Reputational concerns and media laws discourage mass media outlets from knowingly reporting false stories. However, the onslaught of technology and social media gave digital entrepreneurs the opportunity to monetize engineered content in order to drive traffic to websites that deliver more impressions for online advertisements.

Katherine Haenschen and Paul Ellenbogen from the Freedom to Tinker, Princeton University’s Center for Information Technology Policy, a research center that studies digital technologies in public life, illustrated in a diagram how the business model for fake news works.

  1. An individual publishes false information on a Fake News website, then pays to advertise a link to the post in Facebook users’ newsfeeds.
  2. Facebook profits from advertising on its platform, earning money for every person who clicks the link or every 1,000 users who see the ads.
  3. Facebook users click on the advertised links and go to the fake news website, generating an impression for each display ad on the website.
  4. The Fake News site earns revenue from the resulting advertising impressions which amount to millions of page views and tens of thousands of dollars per month.

*Publishers must have a Facebook page to run newsfeed ads.

  1. Fake News producers advertise their page to fans, eventually growing an organic Facebook audience to whom they can share links at no cost.
  2. Fans can share these links to their own Facebook networks, furthering the organic reach of fake news. This is how something “goes viral.”

The Macedonian teens who were writing fake stories during the November 2016 US election were able to make US$7,000 a week with only three tools: a fake news site, a Google AdSense account and a Facebook Page. Investigations conducted by Buzzfeed and the Guardian showed that these teenagers were responsible for more than 100 sites posting fake news.

Aside from initiatives by Facebook and Google to cut off monetization of fake news sites and pages, media literacy is one of the efforts eyed to help solve the proliferation of fake news online.

Quite a number of news organizations here and abroad are now publishing educational materials on how to spot fake news and sharing online content responsibly. Another is for marketers and brands to be aware of fake news sites and stop placing online ads on these questionable sites.

Read also: Fake news inflicts more damage in social media. What can be done

(CJJ12 was published in hardcopy in September 2017.)