Judging by the state of Facebook feeds everywhere, fake news is now a very real problem—and one that appears to have equally real consequences by shaping political and social situations. Now, a new report puts some numbers to the costs of running a fake-news campaign, revealing that a key part of the problem may be that doing so is incredibly affordable.
There are some obvious steps required in launching a fake-news assault. First, you need some fake news—it needn’t be based on fact, but it better have a compelling headline or take the form of an easy-to-digest video, and it ought appeal to the existing biases and ideologies of potential viewers. Then, you need to push it out via social networks, using bots or real humans that you’ve coerced into doing your bidding. Finally, you’ll need likes and shares (again performed by either bots or real people) to ensure that the content saturates the feeds of your targets—and, with any luck, warps their perception of reality.
Of course, nobody wants to be seen to be directly taking any of those steps. So the purveyors of of fake news have abused existing social media tools or paid for the service of gray market firms that will do their bidding. And now, cybersecurity firm Trend Micro has scoured the Web looking for how much those services cost and published its findings. Want an 800-word fake news article written by Chinese content marketer Xiezuobang? That’ll be $30. How about having Russian firm SMOService make a video appear in YouTube’s main page for two minutes? $621, please. What about getting the English-language firm Quick Follow Now to have 2,500 Twitter followers all retweet a link for you? A steal at $25.
Trend Micro has gone a step further than that as well, estimating how much it might cost to use such services to orchestrate some fake-news-fueled real-world events.
For example, it reckons that trolling a journalist into the ground so that readers don’t believe his or her work—something that happened to Mexican reporter Alberto Escorcia—would be fairly simple. It would require a sustained drip-feed of negative articles over a four-week period, with each one retweeted 50,000 times, followed by a vocal smear campaign using poisoned Twitter accounts and negative comments on the journalist’s articles. Total cost: $55,000.
Bringing about a full-scale protest, such as the Minnesota sit-in over a racist slur that was found to be fictional, is a bigger-ticket item. The approach might need 1,000 real people to start an online discussion of contentious issues. That discourse could then be ratcheted up by tossing in bits of fake content that get artificially liked around 40,000 times each so they rise up the news feeds. Then, with a real event being organized and perhaps even advertised using more conventional means, things spill into the real world, with a genuine event taking place. The full cost, says Trend Micro, might be around $200,000.
Influencing something larger, like an election or referendum, is a bigger task still. That would require several whole websites dedicated to generating fake news and cross-referencing each other, legions of followers on social networks, millions of paid-for likes, and even the publication of real news that links to the fake stuff, in an effort to blur lines between fiction and reality and perhaps even get genuine news outlets to confuse the two. “A 12-month campaign with a budget of $400,000 should be able to at least attract a multitude of people whose perception and belief are aligned with the campaign’s preferred agenda,” the report’s authors write. “The deciding factor for this campaign’s success, however, is the timing, or how quickly fake content can be spread before the actual decision is made.”
There are, of course, many efforts that are trying to attenuate the effect of fake news. Wikipedia’s founder, Jimmy Wales, thinks a reimagining of journalism could solve it, while Facebook and Google are pushing to provide users with warnings of suspicious content. But as long as it remains so cheap to shape public perception using fake content—and these figures are, after all, peanuts compared with the advertising budgets behind plenty of real content—they have a fight on their hands.