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‘Tragedy of the commons’ explains fake news crisis

Justin McBrayer

Fake news, disinformation and conspiracy theories abound.

If you want to understand the crazy, mixed-up, 21st century information ecosystem, think about it as what is called a “tragedy of the commons.” That tragedy is enacted any time acting in your own self-interest unwittingly leads to a collective disaster.

In a 1968 paper, professor Garrett Hardin offered the classic description of the tragedy. A group of three herdsmen share a common pasture. Being rational, each wants to maximize his gain. Adding an animal to the common pasture produces a positive benefit to one herdsman and a negative that is shared across all three. Individually, each has an incentive to add as many animals as possible to the shared ground, ensuring eventual environmental collapse.

A reverse pattern explains pollution. It’s reversed because instead of removing something good from the commons, people are adding something harmful to them. But the logic is the same. Each factory owner along a stream has an incentive to dump chemicals into the watershed because the savings benefit the factory, whereas the costs of stream pollution are shared across all users. The net result is that each agent has an incentive to pollute and the commons will collapse.

That’s exactly what’s happened to the information ecosystem.

Imagine the library from your high school. It was a collection of information that was available to all. By definition, it was a commons. And now, thanks to the internet, the informational commons is now larger than ever. With billions of websites and hundreds more added every day, it represents the greatest repository of information the universe has ever seen.

As individual agents, we benefit from using the informational commons. We use that information to improve our understanding, expand our knowledge and inform our decisions. Think about how difficult your life would be if you couldn’t access accurate information available online. Like the herdsmen, we rely on the goods of the common to improve our lives.

And like the herdsmen, we shape the commons. To make the story simple, contributing truth to the commons improves it while contributing falsehoods pollutes it. Each of us contributes to the informational pie.

The catch is that polluting the informational commons often produces a local gain while distributing the cost across all users. The fact is that it’s often in our own best interests to lie (disinformation) or at least be negligent with the truth (misinformation). For example, posting something false on social media can produce local benefits: You signal your political loyalty, entertain or outrage your friends, ensure you fit in with those around you, etc.

But with every intellectual mistake that’s added to the mix, the information ecosystem is degraded. The net result is an individual incentive to pollute: Spewing misinformation makes the overall informational pie only slightly less informative while sometimes achieving immediate personal goals.

So why is the fake news crisis so much worse now than a generation ago? The tragedy of the commons explains that, too. The commons is degraded only when the population of users grows to unsustainable levels. If a single factory is on a stream, pollution isn’t likely to be a problem.

It’s the same with information. Before electronic media, almost no one could pollute the informational commons very much: It took too much time, effort and money. Informational polluters were limited to centralized governments and wealthy newspaper owners. But now anyone with a smartphone can tweet, post or otherwise share misinformation with a worldwide audience at the click of a button. So instead of having a few factories posted along a stream, now we have billions. That’s why we face a fake news crisis.

Justin P. McBrayer is a professor of philosophy at Fort Lewis College.