Indiana University tech tool 'Hoaxy' shows how fake news spreads

A free tool known as 'Hoaxy,' developed by Indiana University's Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research, aims to provide a better understanding of how fake news makes its way across the internet. 

Richard Drew/AP/File
The Twitter app on an iPhone screen in New York on Oct. 18, 2013.

In the latest move in the battle against fake news, a new website dubbed "Hoaxy" offers free visual representations of how unverified news stories spread, mapping out who has shared them on social media and the degree to which they've gone viral. 

Hoaxy, developed by researchers at Indiana University's Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research, doesn't pass any editorial judgements on the legitimacy of the stories' content, but aims instead to provide a clearer look how such news makes its way around the internet. Creators of the tool see Hoaxy as an important first step toward better understanding, and eventually addressing, the roots of the fake news problem. And, unlike other recent efforts to curb the phenomenon, some of which have raised questions regarding censorship and political bias, it may offer a more even-handed approach.  

"It’s a more realistic and a fundamentally less biased kind of way of looking at it," says Jonathan Albright, an assistant professor of communications at Elon University, in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor. "You can always argue about the content of the news or imbedded bias, but [this is] a fairer way of looking at these types of problems because it's more structural." 

The 2016 election saw an explosion of fake news on social media, leading to widespread speculation over how to keep political misinformation from spreading, as Story Hinckley reported for the Monitor last week:

Liberty Writers News, Alex Jones’s Info Wars, and Ending the Fed are among a group of websites that rose in popularity among Donald Trump’s supporters during the 2016 presidential election. But these same sites have been called out as fake news, spreading lies and conspiracy theories – such as Pope Francis’ endorsement of Trump, Hillary Clinton’s supply of weapons to the Islamic State, and various murder-suicides of Mrs. Clinton’s staffers – without any of journalism's traditional fact-checking.

In Monitor interviews, fake news readers defend these outlets as alternative media that mirror their own rejection of the Republican and Democratic political establishments, as well as a mass media that underestimated and shamed their faith in Mr. Trump. Put simply, neither Fox News nor the conservative National Review go remotely far enough for these readers. Fake news sites are essentially the only outlets these readers say can trust...

In that way, fake news is the ultimatum of a political news culture that has increasingly focused on confirming readers’ own worldview instead of challenging them, experts say.

The spread of misinformation tends to be a social phenomenon, as Drew Margolin, an assistant professor of communication at Cornell University, tells the Monitor in an email. As a result, social networks have come under fire in recent weeks as some have accused them of enabling the spread of false news stories. 

Last week, Facebook announced that it would enlist the help of fact-checkers to begin flagging fake news stories, as well as introducing a number of new features to address the proliferation of misinformation floating around the networking site. Days later, German authorities threatened to bring criminal charges against those responsible for fake news reports. Both announcements, while applauded by some as moves to cut down on what many see as a dangerous phenomenon, also raised tricky questions about censorship and the role of a government or social networking site in regulating the media.

The role of Hoaxy, in contrast, isn't to determine what's real or not. Instead, it provides users a physical map of how each unverified article has spread, and provides related links to fact-checking websites, allowing users to draw their own conclusions. A Hoaxy search for "Comet ping pong pedophile," for example, turns up a list of news articles accusing Comet Ping Pong, a popular Washington, D.C. pizzeria, of housing a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton and her campaign manager, as well as a Snopes article debunking the popular fake news story that led one man to bring a gun into the restaurant earlier this month. The site highlights "fact-checking" articles on that particular topic in orange. Click the "visualize" button, and you can see who's shared each link on Twitter. 

The tool is free to the public, and intended for use by anybody who's interested in tracking how such news stories spread. 

"We make a lot of assumptions about what’s going on, and it really helps to have a concrete idea of the different nodes," says Sally Lehrman, director of the Journalism Ethics Program and the Trust Project at Santa Clara University, in a phone interview. "It can help researchers study the phenomenon and understand it and come up with ways to combat it, and it can help news organizations that are trying to put out quality, ethically produced news to understand what they’re up against." 

Hoaxy isn't intended as an end-all solution to curbing fake news, and will likely be used primarily by researchers, developers, and media observers, as Ms. Lehrman notes. But to the tool's creators, it's an important first step in combating the false news epidemic. 

"Until we understand the phenomenon, we can't really develop countermeasures," said Filippo Menczer, director of the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research, to CNET. 

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