In efforts to highlight the prevalence of misinformation, the Center for Social Media Responsibility of University of Michigan School of Information has developed the Iffy Quotient, which measures the proportion of “iffy” articles shared on a given social media platform.
Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter make sharing news articles — whether real, fake or somewhere in between — as easy as clicking a single share button. The spread of news can occur at exponential rates. As such, fake news has been a topic of academic discourse on campus since the term became popularized during the 2016 presidential election. Business professor Andrew Hoffman, for example, teaches about the environment and sustainability and told The Michigan Daily last fall he views fake news as a problem of disengagement within academia.
“When you come into the classroom, you are an empty vessel and we in the classroom teach you information, knowledge, reasoning skills and so forth,” Hoffman said. “That works in the classroom. But the general public, they didn’t buy into that contract. And so you have to win trust and you don’t do that by lecturing. You do that by engaging.”
It’s also a concept taught in more broadly-focused communications classes. She said she’s learned about fake news as an issue that, if left undetected, could alter the efficacy of news altogether.
“From what I’ve learned about in my digital studies, it’s really problematic because it can be spread really easily and is easily believable,” Freeman, a communication studies major, said. “This is really problematic because people see the news as being able to express the truth and that feature is being taken away.”
This is where the Iffy Quotient comes in.
Paul Resnick, associate dean for Research and Faculty Affairs at the School of Information and director of the Center for Social Media Responsibility, was one of the authors of a report on the Iffy Quotient published in October. He said the purpose of the Iffy Quotient is to chart how well online platforms are spreading news overall, as opposed to questioning whether a particular site is legitimate or not.
“We want to chart the prevalence rather than particular instances,” Resnick told The Daily.
The Iffy Quotient works by compiling a set of the 5,000 most popular URLs interacted with on a social media platform on any given day, which is provided by NewsWhip. Each of the 5,000 articles is then screened by Media Bias/Fact Check, which is a service that determines whether a source contains misinformation or bias. The Iffy Quotient is then calculated by dividing the number of iffy articles by 5,000.
Between the summer and fall of 2016, right around the time of the presidential election, the Iffy Quotient for both Facebook and Twitter nearly doubled, indicating that twice as much content from each site had been deemed “iffy.” Since then, the quotient has returned to its pre-election time levels.
One limitation to the usefulness of the Iffy Quotient is the proportion of URLs that are not known by the Media Bias/Fact Check website, which ranges anywhere from 45 to 74 percent for both Facebook and Twitter.Without having ample information on a site’s credibility, the Iffy Quotient could be grossly misrepresented.
There also exists an Iffy Quotient metric for which user engagement is accounted. Instead of counting each of the articles equally, the Iffy Quotient weighs more heavily the accounts that have had more user interaction.
When fake news accounts are sharing fake articles, the Iffy Quotient will spike, thus incentivizing social media platforms to act against fake accounts.
Resnick describes the Iffy Quotient as a metric of “friendly accountability.”
“When it doesn’t make (platforms) look good, I want them to look at it and go talk amongst themselves and say ‘what can we do to make this number look better for us,’” he said. “Hopefully, they’ll actually reduce the amount of misinformation that is getting amplified.”