If readers are having trouble understanding the phenomenon of fake news, there’s good news: There’s an app for that.Well, not an app, exactly. Hoaxy, created by researchers at Indiana University’s Observatory on Social Media, is a platform to help users understand how fake news travels, giving media consumers a visual tool to conduct their own fake news research.
“We really want it to be a tool for reporters and for the general public,” said Filippo Menczer, one of Hoaxy’s creators and a professor in the IU School of Informatics and Computing, in an interview Tuesday.
The project was supported with funding from the National Science Foundation and the J.S. McDonnell Foundation, and builds on Menczer’s past research into the subject of fake news. He and Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia of the IU Network Science Institute, along with Chengcheng Shao, Lei Wang and Gregory Maus of the School of Informatics and Computing, designed Hoaxy in answer to a growing concern that blatantly misleading claims disguised as news stories were affecting discourse online and off the screen.The presidential race saw a virtual avalanche of fake news stories about both candidates that occasionally culminated in real-world consequences, such as the incident of a man firing shots in a Washington, D.C., pizzeria because he had read a story falsely claiming that the business was a front for a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton.
“If we want to stop the growing influence of fake news in our society, first we need to understand the mechanisms behind how it spreads,” Menczer said in a news release from IU. “Tools like Hoaxy are an important step in the process.”
Here’s how it works: If curious users find dubious claims on the internet, they can visit Hoaxy’s web page and type the subjects or headlines into its search engine. For example, during the election, stories circulated that Pope Francis had endorsed Donald Trump for president, even as other stories assured readers that the pope had actually endorsed Hillary Clinton. Typing “pope endorses Trump Clinton” into Hoaxy’s search engine pulls up a list of relevant headlines from the sources it tracks. Results are color-coded orange for fact-checking websites and purple for “claims,” or sites known to publish mostly false or unverified information.
According to the release, those fake news sites are compiled into a list by “reputable news and fact-checking organizations,” including The Daily Dot, U.S. News and World Report, CBS News, New Republic, NPR and Snopes Field Guide.
From Hoaxy’s search results, a user can select the articles they’re curious about and click the “visualize” button. Hoaxy then creates two models: to the left, a temporal trend graph depicts how many Twitter posts have been generated about the topics over a given time span; and to the right, a distribution network shows the different sources of information and how many Twitter users reposted their content. The bigger the cloud around a source, the more retweets it received about the topic, and arrows from different hubs and nodes show the interaction between individual users and the sources of information.
Hoaxy is somewhat limited because it only monitors Twitter and collects only public tweets. And the visualizations aren’t foolproof. Even a website that usually publishes fake news occasionally publishes the truth, and reputable sites can sometimes run mistakes or falsehoods. Sometimes, articles contain a blending of fact and fiction. This is why Hoaxy uses the lists from other news sources to determine which fake news sites to track.
“It’s a very blurry line; therefore, we didn’t go into the business of making any editorial decisions,” Menczer said. But overall, he said, the tool is useful as a quick reference for gauging the way an article goes viral, and which users help it to do so. Users who pop up again and again and consistently repost from certain sources could be particularly enthusiastic Twitter users, or they could be web robots, or “bots.” Hoaxy provides a starting point to help figure out whether a site has many genuine followers or is propped up by bots designed to retweet anything it posts.
These are important elements for users to understand. Fake news “is as old as civilization,” Menczer said, but social media has presented new ways to communicate and spread it. Back when access to readers wasn’t a click away, there were fewer news sources and heavier editorial roles. “People were sort of exposed to some mainstream media, and those mainstream media were more trusted,” he said. Now, people can post whatever they want.
“The majority of the population does not have the media literacy to share reliable information,” he said.
But with tools such as Hoaxy, that may change.
On the web
To give Hoaxy a try for yourself, visit its home page: http://hoaxy.iuni.iu.edu.