Twitter is the primary source of news, gossip, information and misinformation for millions of people around the world. And if you follow the right accounts, you can catch the latest happenings before the mainstream media gets their fact-checkers out of bed.
But how does information spread on Twitter and how can you judge its reliability?
Not everything you read on Twitter can be trusted
Twitter is the digital home of billions of people with different opinions, agendas, perspectives and motivations. While you like to share interesting facts and articles, others like to sow discord and lies, or don’t care if what they repeat is reliable or not.
Often the accounts are not managed by people. Instead, they are bots, automated accounts programmed to increase the visibility of tweets containing certain keywords or from other specific accounts.
In the seconds between reading an entertaining or informative tweet and hitting the button that sends it to your own followers, it’s hard to judge whether you’re sharing a valuable resource or misinformation. Fortunately, there is a tool that can help you.
Hoaxy can help you find the source of a tweet
Hoaxy is a joint project of the Indiana University Institute for Network Science (IUNI) and the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research (CNetS). It uses Twitter’s search API to visualize the spread of information.
As its name suggests, Hoaxy is designed with misinformation in mind. In addition to showing the source of certain tweets, the tool can indicate whether retweets are (likely) made by accounts managed by real people or by automated accounts (bots).
You can type a query directly into Hoaxy or download a set of keywords in a CSV or JSON file. The results are displayed in an easy-to-understand color-coded graph and diagram. You can also play animations to better judge the spread of information over time.
In order to use Hoaxy, you must log in to your Twitter account and authorize Hoaxy to use it. If you don’t have one, it’s easy to create a Twitter account. Once you’re logged in, visit the Hoaxy homepage, and enter a search query in the text box.
Your query can be a word or phrase, such as “Happy New Year,” or a link to an article. You can also import data. The example given by Hoaxy to show how research works is “vaccines”.
You can restrict your search to tweets in a specific language and use advanced search operators. For example, if you’re looking for tweets that mention “Christmas” or “Santa,” you’d type “Christmas OR Santa” (without the quotes). If you want to find tweets written in response to the initiative official MakeUseOf Twitter accountyou can add it to: MUO_official.
As a first test for Hoaxy, we’ve pasted the URL to our article on how cheat.sh gives you access to the best Linux and programming cheat sheets.
As you can see in the image above, the screen is divided into two main sections. On the left, you can see the popularity of an article over time. Below this area is a flattened version of the same chart, which you can select and drag over the time period of interest to get more accurate data.
The main section of the screen shows which accounts have tweeted or retweeted this article, with a line representing links between accounts. The arrow indicates which account the tweet or retweet originated from.
One of the coolest features of Hoaxy is that each account is color-coded based on how likely it is to be automated. A blue tint indicates a high probability that the account exhibits typical human behavior, while a red tint indicates that the account is more robot-like.
In the center of our demo diagram is the MundoLinuxBot account, which retweeted the post five times. If you click on this account and press updateyou can see that Hoaxy gives MundoLinuxBot a score of 3.5 out of 5, and is 80% sure that MundoLinuxBot is an automated account. You will also see the names of the accounts that MundoLinuxBot retweeted that particular link.
Using the time selection tool, you can go back seven days from the date of your query, and see that the first tweet mentioning this article was made by the account Wajeeha65827865, an account with a bot score of 4.7/5, at 4:03 am on Dec 23, MUO_official posted the article 11 hours later.
You can watch the development of the map and account links by pressing the triangular play button in the middle.
Hoaxy lets you observe the spread of information on Twitter
Using Hoaxy allows you to see how information was first uploaded to Twitter and then spread between accounts. It can be an important tool in combating potential misinformation and finding the true source of rumors.
But Hoaxy isn’t perfect and it can never tell you with 100% certainty if something is true or false, or even if a particular account is a bot. You should use it with caution and treat its results as indicative only. If you come across malicious misinformation on Twitter, follow our guide to effectively counter it.