“Countering -Fake News in Natural Disasters via
Bots and Citizen Crowds”
By Tonmona Roy
On September 20, 2017, Mexico City was hit with a 7.1 magnitude earthquake, killing hundreds of people. The death toll started rising quickly, with people trapped under the debris of the fallen buildings. When there is a catastrophe of this magnitude, it is hard for the government to quickly assist everyone. Many started using social media to spread news about trapped people and supplies needed. Among the social media platforms, Twitter became the main site for exchanging information and mobilizing citizens for action. People started using hashtags to learn about what was happening in their neighborhoods and direct actions they could take to help. Some of the most popular hashtags used were #AquiNecesitamos (#HereWeNeed), #Verificado19S (#Verified19S, [19S represents September 19th, the day of the earthquake]). With these hashtags people started to post what they needed and where to deliver it.
However, misinformation started spreading. Some citizens, e.g., started tweeting and calling for help for a doctor allegedly trapped in a building.
But Dr. Elena Orozco, her friends and family all suddenly started reporting on social media:
“…Elena Orozco is not trapped in any building. She is right here with us. She was trying to rescue her co-workers, who were the ones trapped in the building. We are actually still missing Erik Gaona Garnica who decided to go back into the building to get his computer…”
Systems for Countering-Fake News StoriesGiven that Fake News was critically affecting the rescue and well being of people we decided to do something about it. We quickly realized that Codeando Mexico (a social good startup) and universities across Mexico, such as UNAM, were organizing crowds of citizens to build civic media to help the earthquake. Our research lab (The HCI lab at West Virginia University) thus decided to unite forces and in a weekend we had rapidly built together a large scale system to counter fake news and bring verified news about the earthquake.
This led us to decide to bootstrap on existing social networks of people to solve the cold-start problem. Through our investigations, we identified that citizens had put together a Google Spreadsheet where they were posting news reports about the earthquake that were 100% verified (they had a group of people on the ground who actively verified each news report.) The group would then manually post on their social media accounts the verified news from the spreadsheet. But, as the group became more popular, it was hard for the volunteers to spend more time on it and coordinate.
Bootstrapping Bots on Networks of VolunteersOur second design focuses on automating some of the critical bottlenecks that these networks of volunteers experienced when verifying news. In our interviews, we identified that it was difficult for volunteers to differentiate fake and real news because it involved gathering all of the facts behind the story; and it was also a pain to share on social media the news. Our second platform therefore introduced the idea of leveraging citizen crowds and bots (such as our bot @FakeSismo). Bots help in the verification of news by gathering facts and then massively sharing the verified news stories on social media, along with an automatically generated image macro that helps to give more visibility to the story. In this way, human volunteers can focus more on verifying the information. The work flow of our system is as follows:
Bots in ActionTo test out our bot, it started by tweeting verified information about the resources needed and it got very good responses. The bot currently has 176 followers and it’s increasing. As an example, the bot posted a news report about needing certain resources and someone started engaging with the bot, saying they had a refrigerator to give away. The bot focused on distributing the information and connecting the citizen who could use the refrigerator.
We also saw that citizens tried to actively verify news reports along with the bot.
In short, our bot is working together with a group of enthusiastic volunteers and helping in gathering and distributing verified information. As we test out more of the bot, we hope to connect with a larger mass of people to start a platform that can counter-fake news during natural disasters.
Social Media, Civic Engagement, and the Slacktivism Hypothesis: Lessons from Mexico's "El Bronco''Does social media use have a positive or negative impact on civic engagement? The cynical "slacktivism hypothesis'' holds that if citizens use social media for political conversation, those conversations will be fleeting and vapid. Most attempts to answer this question involve public opinion data from the United States, so we offer an examination of an important case from Mexico, where an independent candidate used social media to communicate with the public and eschewed traditional media outlets. He won the race for state governor, defeating candidates from traditional parties and triggering sustained public engagement well beyond election day. In our investigation, we analyze over 750,000 posts, comments, and replies over three years of conversations on the public Facebook page of "El Bronco.'' We analyze how rhythms of political communication between the candidate and users evolved over time and demonstrate that social media can be used to sustain a large quantity of civic exchanges about public life well beyond a particular political event.
Read more about our research: here
Spanish Version of Paper: here