Fantastic Facts

and How to Fake Them

The Topic of the Day

Fake news. You've heard that term before. You've likely even been recently exposed to fake news.

Fake news affect public debate on the economy, the environment, healthcare, and it can directly affect your daily life.

The Internet has made it possible to shift public perception in a way that was previously unimaginable.

But have you ever stopped to think about fake news?

How is it created, how does it spread, how does it impact you, and most importantly, what can you do about it?

Start From the Source

Fake news gain traction as they spread and change the perception of reality of those who believe it and further contribute to their spreading. However, in order for fake news to spread, someone has to create it to begin with.

But who? Let's use COVID-19 as an example.

A report by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) showed that only 12 people were responsible for 65% of COVID-19 related lies on social media. They were called The Disinformation Dozen

The Power of The Few

The massive followings and engagement of these twelve people allowed them to spread disinformation about the pandemic and question the effectiveness of vaccines, reaching millions.

We have managed to obtain the Twitter interactions for 6 of those people, the Disinformation 6, whose accounts have not been suspended. These individuals are still active on the platform.

We examined their interactions on Twitter, and what we found is it only takes as few as half a dozen people to create a deep network of lies.

Who Are the Disinformation 6 Tweeting at?

A closer look

You may have noticed a few things: artists, politicians, ordinary people, doctors and "doctors", all of them receiving disinformation from a select few people on a deadly disease.

But were they only talking about COVID-19?

We made a word cloud of what the tweets from the Disinformation 6 were spreading, and it turns out that those who spread fake news, spread it about everything.

Venn diagram of misinformation

A Venn diagram that categorizes different forms of information pollution.
Source: The Brookings Institution, How misinformation spreads on Twitter

Politics, Vaccines, Climate Change

Fake news spread lies about all subjects, at the cost of lives

Does it seem like the same people who spread conspiracy theories about one topic, also share false information about another? It's not coincidence.

The word cloud here is made up of the top 150 terms used in 15,647 tweets from the Disinformation 6. You can hover over a word to see how many times it was mentioned.

While it's fun to play with the dancing words by clicking the button below, it should be noted that word clouds can be considered harmful in the way they present information.

What is the point of fake news?

From climate change to vaccines, the Disinformation 6 talk about topics of high socioeconomic relevance. The presence of agents who spread misinformation on social media disrupts public debate by making it hard to agree on the basic facts that ground a discussion.

With all that said, what is the point of it? Why would someone dedicate time and resources just to spread falsehoods?

Spreaders of disinformation don't just lie for the sake of it. For every lie they spread, there is a goal to achieve, and a narrative to tell.

Misinformation Over Time

As time passes, so do the origins and goals of misinformation.

Where does all of this come from?

Despite the Disinformation 6 all being active in the United States, fake news is in no way restricted to this country. In fact, individuals and organizations around the globe take part in spreading fake news, each with their own narratives and goals.

The data on the following page contains 5301 pieces of COVID-19 disinformation from January 2020 to March 2021. Plotting this information on a map leads to a very simple conclusion: Fake news know no borders. Anyone can tell a lie.

Disinformation: A story across the globe

Fake news know no borders. Anyone can tell a lie.

Visualization Control

The Oldest Trick in the Book

From everything you've seen so far, you may believe that spreading fake news is a recent phenomenon, a consequence of technology enabling people to reach the entire world instantly.

Although it seems that the term "fake news" became widespread as recently as 2016, fraudsters have been aware of the power of disinformation since long before that. The term "fake news" was first used in the 1890s, when sensational reports in newspapers known for "yellow journalism" were common.

Even though the Internet has enabled the dissemination of misinformation on an unprecedented scale, fake news is a tale as old as time.

Tale as old as time, fake as it can be


Why Does This Matter?

So, even though fake news has gained a surge in recent years, it is actually older than sliced bread. So what's this buzz about disinformation now? Why should I care?

If in 1693 one man with his printer in a basement in London could pose a threat against the king, and one fake letter in 1803 caused fortunes to be made and destroyed in stock exchanges, imagine the devastation that fake news powered by the Internet can cause.

Or don't imagine, you don't have to.

Just look at COVID-19.

In the following visualization, COVID-19 cases and deaths are compared to Twitter activity spreading disinformation. It's noticeable that surges of disinformation are followed by an increase in disease.
Disinformation is used for personal profit. Disinformation shakes the trust in our institutions. Disinformation kills.

COVID-19 vs Tweets

How disinformation correlates with cases and deaths

Days to Aggregate

A Recap

We've seen that it only takes a handful of people online to cause a profound social impact by spreading disinformation. You also learned that these people use disinformation to spread their narrative, to achieve political goals, or simply for personal profit.

That fake news is not a recent thing, and even large mainstream media outlets have used it to gain popularity and make a quick buck.

And that through the overwhelming, never-ending firehose of social media, it continues to thrive, spreading disease, destroying lives, and eroding our trust in one another.

What now?

All of this may seem hopeless. After all, you are just one person, what could you possibly do against fake news?

The rise of "free speech absolutism" has created a chaotic landscape of impersonation and lies, especially across Twitter, who has even gone so far to remove their COVID-19 misinformation policy as shown on the right.

This is not a small matter, as since January 2020, Twitter has challenged 11.72 million accounts, suspended 11,230 accounts, and removed over 97,674 pieces of COVID-19 misinformation.

If we can't rely on companies to protect us from disinformation, what can we do? What happens next may shock you.

Twitter will no longer enforce COVID-19 policy

Twitter will no longer enforce its policy against COVID-19 misinformation, raising concerns among public health experts and social media researchers that the change could have serious consequences if it discourages vaccination and other efforts to combat the still-spreading virus.

But first, a word from our sponsors

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Despite everything, you CAN detect and avoid being manipulated by fake news. With a little bit of healthy skepticism and a trained eye to spot the telling signs of fake news, it's possible to spot this stuff in the wild.

How to Spot Fake News

Here is an image of a web page which pushes many conspiracy theories, and was frequently tweeted out by one of the Disinformation 6. It has the standard layout of a news website, and appears to be quite professional.

Hover over the green circles on the website. For every circle, you will learn new ways a "news" article can spread disinformation, and useful tips to detect them.

A Glimmer of Hope: Twitter's Lesson

In November 2022, Twitter allowed their verification checkmark to be purchased. This led to a spike in impersonation and a free-for-all of misinformation. Stock prices of the affected companies suffered, and advertisers retreated from the platform.

Twitter removed the ability to purchase verification after just 48 hours.

BREAKING: A second Tesla has hit the World Trade Center
If this gets 1000 retweets we will put cocaine back in Coca-Cola
We are excited to announce insulin is free now.
We steal your water and sell it back to you lol

You've reached the end! Hopefully this presentation has provided both an ability to recognize disinformation as well as understand the damage that it does. Thanks for reading!

We are two graduate students at Harvard Extension School, and our visualization project was for CS171:Visualization class in Fall 2022.

Ian Kelk
Ian Kelk

ALM Data Science
Ph.D. in Charlatanomics

Ronan Fonseca
Ronan Fonseca

ALM Data Science
Ph.D. in Oleodecobronics


Just kidding.
Datasets used:

Other sources:

Visualization sources from Observable