Prisoner Dilemma explains Fake Newsby@lorenzobarberiscanonico
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Prisoner Dilemma explains Fake News

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The fall of the 4th power is on the way, as a <a href="" target="_blank">meme</a> stronger than authority is propagating: it’s the rise of post-truth politics and “fake news”.

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The fall of the 4th power is on the way, as a meme stronger than authority is propagating: it’s the rise of post-truth politics and “fake news”.

The Problem

You can blame Trump all you want, but the notion of “fake news” has caught on for a reason: the populous has grown increasingly skeptical of the narratives promoted by the media. Whether you believe that Fox news actively spread misinformation about Obama, or that the NYT and Washington Post do the same by spreading a fabricated story from Buzzfeed, you fundamentally distrust the media network that updates you on the world on a regular basis.

The rise of social media has pitted traditional media companies (newspapers and broadcast news networks) against hyper-media companies (Facebook and Twitter). Because of social media has the upper hand on audience outreach even more than CNN’s 24-hour broadcast does, traditional media finds itself bled out of a majority of its content as daily news has been replaced by feeds.

The Reward System

Bits travel faster than papers, and this dynamic has lead to a race to the bottom as these two different media paradigms try to one-up each other by connecting people with news at an accelerating pace. Because most news is consumed (rapid information extraction) as opposed to processed (deep processing of information), the reward system becomes winner-takes-all, and traditional media has been losing for the most part.

In a winner-takes-all game, being first is everything, which is why quality standards drop for the sake of efficiency. In the case of news however, quality standards are what enables journalists to distinguish facts from fabrication, and undermine manipulative narratives, at least in an ideal scenario. For the most part, news are event updates, a commodity that gains no more value coming from the New York Times than it does from because branding has little effect on news consumption preferences (after all, most people trust their extended friended group more than a random newspaper).

Fake news was always going to take over, and all media are not guilty but complicit of such a trend, and this is because of Game Theory.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma

A prisoner’s dilemma is a scenario in game theory used to show the limitations of strictly rational (self-interested) behavior. Wikipedia explains:

Two members of a criminal gang are arrested and imprisoned. Each prisoner is in solitary confinement with no means of communicating with the other. The prosecutors lack sufficient evidence to convict the pair on the principal charge. They hope to get both sentenced to a year in prison on a lesser charge. Simultaneously, the prosecutors offer each prisoner a bargain. Each prisoner is given the opportunity either to: betray the other by testifying that the other committed the crime, or to cooperate with the other by remaining silent. The offer is:

If A and B each betray the other, each of them serves 2 years in prison

If A betrays B but B remains silent, A will be set free and B will serve 3 years in prison (and vice versa)

If A and B both remain silent, both of them will only serve 1 year in prison (on the lesser charge)

Here is a visualization of “the Matrix”, and no, it’s not referring to the movie but rather to the set of choices and their associated payoffs (rewards) based on what the opponent does.

The Nash Equilibrium (the pair of decisions for A and B from which it becomes irrational to deviate) is for both A and B to betray each other. If A betrays B, A is better off regardless of whether B stays silent (0 > -1) or betrays (-2 > -3), and since the matrix is symmetric (both A and B have access to the same choices and payoffs) it’s also better for B to betray A since B will be better off regardless of what A decides to do. Thus, in order to maximize their self-interest, A and B gravitate towards a set of actions that actually makes them worst off then if they had somehow managed to coordinate, all because A and B have no reason to rational reason to trust each other since the self-interested thing to do is to betray.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma (PD) shows how coordination is sometimes impossible because it’s irrational, and PD dynamics manifest themselves all over biology, psychology, economics, politics and so on.

From Prisoner’s Dilemma to Tragedy of the Commons

The media find themselves stuck in an even worse version of the PD: the tragedy of the commons (ToC). ToC is just like the PD except it’s not 1 vs 1 but rather it’s a group game, where the group decides to try to consume a shared resource in a sustainable way to avoid depletion yet the entire scheme can collapse if even just one person defects because such person would have access to the entirety of the resource. Just like in PD, every single player in ToC cannot trust any one of the other players not to defect from the agreement since it’s in their best interest to do, which leads to everyone defecting and thus depleting the resource.

ToC is essentially an even more fragile version of the PD dynamic, since a tiny minority of the group defecting from the agreement would make the agreement collapse no matter how many people somehow find a way to coordinate. This is tragic indeed.

ToC applied to Fake News

There is a great scene in Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom” when the ACN team of journalists at the center of the show have to contemplate whether or not to go ahead and pronounce Gabby Giffords’ death in the aftermath of her attempted shooting. Confirmation from the hospital has not arrived, yet other news outlets are already declaring her dead, which means viewers are tuning to them as opposed to ACN. Every moment they wait to confirm the truth of the story, they financially lose to their competitors.

This is precisely the scenario news agencies find themselves in every day now that social media is taking over and becoming the go-to source of news for consumption. The speed has just changed so drastically that by the time an event and its narratives are verified by the news outlet, it has already deprecated and become “old news” since the viewers have already read all about it on social media.

Hence, the Tragedy of the Commons leads to Fake News because it’s much cheaper to produce fake news (no need to pay journalists for fact-checking) and irrational not to share news that’s blowing up on social media (since failing to address such an event enables competitors to get ahead) and thus we fall into this downward spiral of fake news spreading so rapidly that by the time the truth is verified we as the audience have already moved on.


Game theory explains exactly why fake news is on the rise, and it’s because the dynamic of the Tragedy of the Commons undermines the basis for the media as a whole to coordinate to prevent a race to the bottom.

Sadly, fake news does not just undermine one of the pillars of checks and balances in our society, but it can also lead to real tragedies like the attempted mass shooting in DC following the pizza-gate conspiracy.