Falling for fake news is like giving your bank account details to a forlorn Nigerian prince

Don’t always believe the signs.
Don’t always believe the signs.
Image: AP Photo/Giovanna Dell’Orto
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Shortly after the appearance of email, you probably received your first message from a Nigerian prince with the impassioned plea to help free up millions of dollars locked away in a foreign bank account. “My father was a very wealthy merchant before he was poisoned to death by his business associates,” he would begin. “Before his death, he secretly called me on his bedside and told me that he has a sum of $12,500,000 left in a suspense account in a local bank.”

Of course, to help him, you would need to provide either access to your bank account information or a small sum of money to get things rolling.

You have most likely read and deleted several of these messages from forlorn princes and other notaries, laughing at the thought of anyone believing such a ridiculous story. But more people believe it than you may think did: A total of $12.7 billion dollars were lost to Nigerian prince scams at last count. Oddly enough, the absurdity of the messages is part of their effectiveness. And we’re now seeing this same scam play out on a whole new scale.

Ensnaring all of the emails’ recipients is never the intent of the Nigerian prince scammers. In fact, they do not want to talk with you, the well-educated internet user. Convincing skeptics of their plots would take way too much time, so they only want to work with people who, no matter how absurd the offer, are true believers of outlandish tales.

The dynamic of fake news is essentially the Nigerian-prince scam, albeit with a slightly different business model.

Organizations creating fake news depend on the same kind of true-believer responses as the Nigerian prince scammers: They want readers to either dismiss an article (“This is absurd!”) or pass it on (“I knew it all along!”). Both types of scams prey on people’s willingness or desire to believe the unbelievable, and they use fantastical, eye-catching stories to both ensnare and repel. It’s not a problem that some people are too smart or savvy to fall for a fake news story—because they’re not the target in the first place.

In 2016, Buzzfeed reported that two of the top 20 fake-news stories, measured by social media engagement, were “Pope Francis Shocks World, Endorses Trump for President, Releases Statement” and “WikiLeaks CONFIRMS Hillary Sold Weapons to ISIS… Then Drops Another BOMBSHELL!” (The Pope Francis story has since been taken down.) While they may seem crazy to you and I, these stories were accepted and embraced by those who wanted them to be true; they affirmed the readers’ particular worldviews.

As with the Nigerian-prince scammers, the story’s job is to either rope in resonant readers or drive skeptics away. This means that they need editorial strategies that both attract and repel. In both cases, the first response leads to revenue, and the second undercuts the possibility of rebuttal or take down.

For example, fake-news organizations such as BigAmericanNews, DailyCurrant, and EnduringVision make their money based on clicks, page views, and advertising. To get there, they need the support of believers, and to avoid attention from the outsiders. If they’re successful, non-believers ignore the stories and assume others will do the same, and fake news is able to move about freely in believer social media networks gaining steam, being read mainly by those for whom the message is less about information and more about confirmation.

As someone who has researched the democratization of information for a long time, I’m very interested in how news spreads. Information technology amplifies this effect as stories enter the news-filter bubbles of social media. These “gated communities” of news and information, created by a combination of human sharing and recommendation algorithms, isolate readers by showing them only those stories that match their points of view. My bubble might make it seem like everyone believes US president Donald Trump is a buffoon, while someone else’s may make it seem like everyone knows the entire Clinton family is a collection of thieves and sexual deviants. And it’s not just tech differences: We’ve lost trust in the evening news and instead look to the stories shared by old high-school buddies who “friended” us years ago. The aggressive segmentation of news this creates is responsible for much of the polarization of opinion that dominates political discourse in America and beyond.

Back in the late 1900s and early 2000s, when our inboxes were full of affluent exotic princesses offering us their marriage dowries, it took us a little time to be able to differentiate between truth and fiction before we learned to recognize the scam. Twenty years later, we need to train ourselves in a similar way to be able to detect fake-news articles.

There are some technology fixes in the works. Tools like Fake and B.S. Detector, browser plugins that check sources for you, and Full Fact, a Google supported initiative to provide automated fact checking, are a nice start. Likewise, Facebook is rolling out tools focused on crowd-sourcing, fact checking, and labeling of content to help surface fake news, while removing financial incentives by no longer supporting ad content associated with them.

But these are just the first steps in an ongoing arms race between fake-news providers and those who want to stop them. The reality is that this is not just a fake-news problem: It’s a problem of how we deal with information. We tend to read and hear what we already believe. Whether it is true, false, or exaggerated, we like the things that fit into our worldview and deny those that do not. It comes down to asking ourselves if we believe something because we are convinced that it is true, or because we want it to be true.

In the meantime, I have a hard drive with the cryptographic key to $272 million dollars worth of Bitcoins locked in a safety deposit box in Argentina. For various legal reasons, I cannot get access to it—but I only need the investment of few thousand dollars and an external agent to free it all up. Interested?