IU's Filippo Menczer Develops Hoaxy
to Understand Spread of Fake News
December 22, 2016
Observatory on Social Media at Indiana University has launched a
powerful new tool in the fight against fake news.
The tool, called Hoaxy, visualizes how claims in the news -- and fact
checks of those claims -- spread online through social networks. The
tool is built upon earlier work at IU led by Filippo Menczer, a
professor and director of the Center for Complex Networks and Systems
Research in the IU School of Informatics and Computing.
"In the past year, the influence of fake news in the U.S. has grown from
a niche concern to a phenomenon with the power to sway public opinion,"
Menczer said. "We've now even seen examples of fake news inspiring
real-life danger, such as the gunman who fired shots in a Washington,
D.C., pizza parlor in response to false claims of child trafficking."
Previous tools from the observatory at IU include BotOrNot, a system to
assess whether the intelligence behind a Twitter account is more likely
a person or a computer, and a suite of online tools that allows anyone
to analyze the spread of hashtags across social networks.
In response to the growth of fake news, several major web services are
making changes to curtail the spread of false information on their
platforms. Google and Facebook recently banned the use of their
advertisement services on websites that post fake news, for example.
Facebook also rolled out a system last week through which users can flag
stories they suspect are false, which are then referred to third-party
Over the past several months, Menczer and colleagues were frequently
cited as experts on how fake news and misinformation spread in outlets
such as PBS Newshour, Scientific American, The Atlantic, Reuters,
Australian Public Media, NPR and BuzzFeed.
A Hoaxy search reveals articles
that claim cannabis cures cancer. The graph on the left shows the rise
in these claims over the past five months. The graph on the right shows
the claim's spread on social media.
Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia, a research
scientist at the IU Network Science Institute, coordinated the Hoaxy
project with Menczer. Ciampaglia said a user can now enter a claim into
the service’s website and see results that show both incidents of the
claim in the media and attempts to fact-check it by independent
organizations such as snopes.com, politifact.com and factcheck.org.
These results can then be selected to generate a visualization of how
the articles are shared across social media.
The site's search results display headlines that appeared on sites known
to publish inaccurate, unverified or satirical claims based upon lists
compiled and published by reputable news and fact-checking
A search of the terms "cancer" and "cannabis," for example, turns up
multiple claims that cannabis has been found to cure cancer, a statement
whose origins have been roundly debunked by the reputable fact-checking
website snopes.com. A search of social shares of articles that make the
claim, however, shows a clear rise in people sharing the story, with
under 10 claims in July rising to hundreds by December.
Specifically, Ciampaglia said, Hoaxy's visualizations illustrate both
temporal trends and diffusion networks as they relate to online claims
and fact-checks. Temporal trends plot the cumulative number of Twitter
shares over time. Diffusion networks show how claims spread from person
to person. Twitter is currently the only social network tracked by Hoaxy,
and only publicly posted tweets appear in the visualizations.
"Importantly, we do not decide what is true or false," Menczer said.
"Not all claims you can visualize on Hoaxy are false, nor are we saying
that the fact-checkers are 100 percent correct all of the time. Hoaxy is
a tool to observe how unverified stories and the fact-checking of those
stories spread on public social media. It's up to users to evaluate the
evidence about a claim and its rebuttal."
Menczer's interest in fake news began over seven years ago. In an
experiment reported in a paper titled "Social Spam Detection," he
created a website of fake celebrity news clearly marked as false and
promoted the articles on social bookmarking websites, which were popular
at the time. After a month, Menczer was shocked to receive a check based
on ad revenue from the site.
"That early experiment demonstrated the power of the internet to
monetize false information," he said. "I didn't expect at the time that
the problem would reach the level of national debate."
the years since the experiment, however, the volume and influence of
fake news have expanded across the web from sources as disparate as
satirical websites, ideologically motived organizations and Macedonian
teenagers working to rake in advertising dollars.
“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. “Tools like Hoaxy are an important step in the process.”
Menczer is also a member of the IU Network Science Institute, a project
partner that contributed support to Hoaxy. Other researchers on the
project were Chengcheng Shao, a visiting doctoral student, and graduate
students Lei Wang and Gregory Maus, all of the IU School of Informatics
An academic paper on the project,
"Hoaxy: A Platform for Tracking Online
Misinformation," is available online from the Proceedings of
the 25th International Conference Companion on World Wide Web.
This research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation
and the J.S. McDonnell Foundation.