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Use this fascinating tool to track down the source of false health claims

Use this fascinating tool to track down the source of false health claims

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Misinformation about health spreads as rapidly and, in some cases, as lethally as a pathogen.

Just as a team from the United Nations might try to find a “patient zero” at the center of a disease outbreak, you can find the people at the center of falsehoods about vaccines, health care policies, and just about anything that has been the subject of social media buzz.

You can do this by using a tool called Hoaxy. It was launched in a beta version in December 2016 by researchers who are part of the Observatory on Social Media at Indiana University.

Hoaxy pulls in data from social media and lets you visualize that data to see how claims and fact checks of those claims move around. At its core is work pioneered by Filippo Menczer, a professor and former director of the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research in the IU School of Informatics and Computing. Hoaxy can help you get ahead of a raging misinformation wildfire. A Massachusetts Institute of Technology study recently showed that falsehoods spread more quickly than facts.

To map the spread of misinformation, you can search Hoaxy’s databases of social media posts or you can search Twitter directly using the tool. If you are investigating a story, it can provide you a way to see clearly how a hoax was spread or is being spread in the moment.

For example, a popular claim from people who don’t want children to be immunized against deadly childhood diseases is that the majority of people who have been diagnosed with measles were actually vaccinated against measles. The falsehood appears to lend credence to the idea that being vaccinated actually puts your health at higher risk.

I went to Hoaxy and plugged in these words: “majority measles vaccinated.” I chose “Hoaxy” for my search, instead of “Twitter.” I hit “Search.” The screen filled with dots that moved around until coalescing into the form familiar to stargazers, a constellation. Instead of stars, though, there were clusters of dots in shades from red to blue. The blue dots are those deemed to be social media channels run by people. The red dots are deemed to be automated social media posting machines, or bots. My search yielded a network of claims radiating outward from red dots named some variation on the phrase “trutherbot.” “Trutherbotgold,” Trutherbotpink,” “Trutherbotbrwn,” you get the picture.

When you click on these dots, you see that Hoaxy has determined that they are highly likely to be bots, not people. In most cases, by the time I caught up with this claim, these accounts had been either voluntarily deactivated on Twitter or forced off the site by Twitter. (It’s hard to know which.)

They all were spreading this headline from the alternative-health site “Measles Vaccines Kill More People than Measles, CDC Data Proves.” And, as you follow the links from the “truther” nodes, you can click on the dots and see the conversations that happened around the claims. Some people simply retweeted. Others rebutted.

“I wish you well with your yellow fever, cholera, typhoid, typhus, bubonic plague, cervical cancer CHEERS,” one person wrote in a Twitter conversation about the claim.

(I have written about how we should refrain from demonizing people with ideas that are outside of mainstream scientific thinking. Shouting just makes people angry and more entrenched.)

It’s important to know that Hoaxy is not making assertions about whether a claim is false or whether a fact check on that claim is true. It’s merely showing the spread of both claims.

"Importantly, we do not decide what is true or false," Menczer said in a statement when the site was launched. "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."

When you download the data from the site, you will see the word “true” and “false” throughout the data. Those terms do not relate to the veracity of the claim or the fact check. Instead, they signal whether one social media user was mentioned by another social media user and are meant to be more of a “yes” and “no.”

Now, it might seem obvious that measles itself kills more people than the measles vaccine, but let’s try to understand how these false claims are constructed. The ones that have the whiff of science seem even more virulent. This one, for example, has its roots in something posted on a website for a group calling itself the “Centre for Research on Globalization.”

The name might make you think it’s a university research center. A Google street view of the place the Centre lists as its address in Montreal shows one of those private post-office box shops offering wire transfers and photo printing.

Claims made about the measles vaccine being more deadly than measles have been proven false repeatedly, including by Snopes. The data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention actually show that measles cases and deaths have fallen precipitously since the introduction of the vaccine in 1963, so much so that the disease was declared eliminated from the U.S. in 2000.

It has resurged in recent years because of people choosing to ignore vaccination guidelines.

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