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This Tool Maps the Spread of Fake News Online

Hoaxy is a website that shows you exactly who is sharing what types of articles online, and how far they've spread on social media.

Fake news, sensationalized media and blatant lies disguised as journalism have, unfortunately become major themes this year. Facebook's finally stepping up to stop the spread, but some academics and data journalists have been working on the problem of viral misinformation for longer, with guides to help students become better news consumers and extensions to flag fake news.

A new online tool called Hoaxy is the latest among these efforts, and perhaps the most visual one yet. Hoaxy is a website created by Filippo Menczer, a professor at Indiana University's Observatory on Social Media. Menczer actually started working on the problem more than seven years ago, studying how social networks detect spam.

"I cannot say we have been too surprised by fake news. But the virality of outlandish claims has gone beyond my early predictions," Menczer told Motherboard in an email. "I had assumed that reliable news would have an edge over fabricated ones. Recent data suggests that is not necessarily the case. To interpret this data, we developed a model of the competition between memes in social media. This model predicts that in realistic conditions of information overload and limited attention, high-quality information has little or no competitive advantage over low-quality information."

"Before sharing something, they should read it and then ask themselves: am I sure this is true?"

Hoaxy examines how fake news spreads across social media in particular. When you type in a term, it shows you links to news articles that made claims about that term (based on a pre-determined list of websites), as well as articles fact-checking those claims, and displays numbers of how many times both the claims and the fact-checked stories were shared on Twitter and Facebook. It also displays a graph and a tree diagram of Twitter shares.

Menczer and his team define a claim as a "fake news article, hoax, rumor, conspiracy theory, satire, or even an accurate report," and fact checks as the work of independent organizations, including snopes.com, politifact.com, and factcheck.org. It's the difference between "Mainstream Media Totally Flips Out! Recklessly Defends Comet Ping Pong Owner!" (claim) and "How Pizzagate went from fake news to a real problem" (fact).

Searching "Comet Ping Pong and child trafficking" on Hoaxy returns a mix of fact-checked articles and claims, but searching simply the code word #pizzagate shows a different spread: Far more claims than fact-checks.

Image: Hoaxy

Image: Hoaxy

"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 IU news release. "Tools like Hoaxy are an important step in the process."

Menczer is careful to note that Hoaxy isn't judging what's true and false, but providing a tool to show as much information as possible. For the casual news reader looking to improve their media consumption, he suggests being aware that your opinion can be manipulated. "To avoid being victims and perpetrators of this abuse, they have to be mindful that the information to which they are exposed is a biased sample, selected to match their beliefs," he said. "Avoid the notorious echo chamber effect by resisting the urge to unfollow people you disagree with."

Think before you share, as well. "People also should be careful of what they share. Before sharing something, they should read it and then ask themselves: am I sure this is true?"

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