High-quality information can thrive in a socially connected world, but only when people are not too well-connected and only when misinformation is not too widespread.
These are among the findings of new research by Professor David McAdams of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business. McAdams’ work “Social Connectedness and Information Markets,” co-authored with Duke economics professor Rachel Kranton, is forthcoming in the American Economic Journal: Microeconomics.
McAdams was interested in understanding how content creators’ incentives affect the quality of information shared over social networks.
“If people widely share your content, it is going to be seen by a lot of people and you will benefit, by making more money or earning more prestige,” McAdams said.
McAdams wondered how platform forwarding limits aimed at tamping down misinformation, such as Facebook’s sharing limits announced in 2020 for their Messenger platform, could affect the spread of truthful information.
“These platforms are trying to control a problem, but they're also limiting how widely good information can be shared,” McAdams said.
McAdams said high-quality information may be more expensive for a publisher to produce, given the attention to detail in reporting, researching and fact-checking. He wanted to understand how consumer behavior in social media could impact a publisher’s decision to invest in high-quality content.
“If we have a world where good things spread widely and bad things do not, then there's a strong incentive to make good stuff,” McAdams said. “But if bad information spreads, then you have less incentive to create high-quality content.”
McAdams and his co-author used a game-theory model where the players are information suppliers and information consumers. Besides news, McAdams said that their model could also be applied to other kinds of information that shape decisions—for example, recipe postings and whether people try them, or political messages and how people vote.
In the model, consumers decide whether to share stories that they encounter with others over a social network, based on their own personal judgments about story quality. However, people’s ability to judge quality is imperfect.
“People can have bad taste,” he said. “Also, people may trust a story just because many other people are sharing it, because they think, ‘who am I to judge its quality?’”
The researchers found that social connections incentivize publishers to produce more high-quality information than in a world without any social connections at all, because quality content has higher chances of being shared.
However, McAdams said there is also a tipping point—once people follow sufficiently many others, even low-quality information will be widely seen, which is bad news for information quality.
“In a world where people follow tons of other people, all those connections allow low-quality stuff to survive and thrive,” McAdams said. “And that's bad for quality, because we want high-quality content to be rewarded.”
The researchers also applied their model to consider the impacts of misinformation.
They found that if consumers can’t distinguish between real versus fake news, misinformation causes them to lose trust in all news and share less, which in turn causes bona-fide producers to invest less and produce even fewer high-quality stories themselves.
However, they also found that a small amount of misinformation can actually improve information quality, by making consumers more alert in filtering out fake stories. “Consumers become more judicious when deciding which stories to share,” the authors write, which “increases bona-fide suppliers’ incentive to invest in producing high-quality stories.”
McAdams said limits like the ones introduced by Facebook on Messenger could be somewhat effective in reducing misinformation. Curating what users see could be another option for some platforms but, as McAdams notes: “Curation might not be as successful as one would expect, because it reduces users’ incentive to be vigilant themselves.”
For content creators, McAdams suggests a more reliable path to escape the harms of dysfunctional information markets: publishers should invest in building their brand as high-quality producers.
“Make your own identity observable and tied to the content,” he said, “so that you can distinguish your content from others.”