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Information Cascades, False Deaths, and Revenue

Every few months, word gets around that a celebrity, politician, or well-known person of some sort has died in some unfortunate way. Depending on the quality of the fabrication, millions of people can fall for such a ruse, even though the information is completely incorrect. However, after closer examination or a short amount of time, it is determined that the news was a hoax, and the person in question is in fact alive and well. The article above is a response to several websites who claimed that the celebrity Macaulay Culkin had died, by proving that those articles were in fact hoaxes.  These “Viral Hoaxes” are commonplace in pop culture and social media, and are in fact information cascades.

As defined, information cascades have four main components:

1)      Agents make decisions sequentially

2)      Agents make decisions rationally based on the information they have

3)      Agents do not have access to the private information of others

4)      A limited action space exists (e.g. an adopt/reject decision).

(Taken from Wikipedia and “Networks, Crowds, and Markets”, by Professor Easley and Professor Kleinberg)


In the case of an internet death hoax, (or any hoax), the four requirements are satisfied. The first one is because of the nature in which such hoaxes are shared. The general case is the source of the false information is posted on social media, and then is shared, linked to, retweeted, etc. These can be considered sequential decisions, as each person has a decision to read, believe, and share the information in time order in which they access the information. (I.e. when the article comes up in their news feed). The second requirement is satisfied, because the reader either reads the article, believes it and passes the information along, or they do not believe it and do not share it. (Similarly, they could google and see if it was actually the case, thus adding more available information to their decision).

Thirdly, it can be generally said that the average internet user does not have access to the celebrity in question to verify them being alive, nor do they have inside information to whichever website/person posted the death hoax, thus they do not have any other private information. Finally, there is a limited action space in the fact that they can both believe the hoax and choose to pass it along, or they can reject the story and pass on the fact that it is fake, or they can simply ignore it entirely. Due to the finite number of options of response they have when it comes to an article such as the Macaulay death hoax, such articles satisfy all four of the above requirements, and can be considered information cascades.


In addition, this same argument can be extended beyond fake death hoaxes. Any website, tabloid, etc who advertises false information in an attempt to raise revenue can be classified as using an incorrect information cascade to raise money. For example, on Twitter, Facebook, etc. there are many links to websites that advertise claims that will generate lots of viewers, and thus lots of advertising revenue. For example, a twitter account may tweet a link to a website claiming to “have discovered a new supplement that builds muscle fast”, or have a link to exclusive pictures of celebrities, etc. Those who believe this information and share the links participate in a false information cascade. There seems to be no end in sight to these cascades, as they offer a continuing stream of revenue for many internet websites.


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