By: River Terrell, Kami Vinton
Researchers at The University of Texas at Austin’s Computational Media Lab who are part of The Good Systems project, “Designing Responsible AI Technologies to Curb Disinformation,” present a new tool – PoxVerifi – a free, easy-to-use fact-checker to help anyone find reliable monkeypox-related news.
What is PoxVerifi? How does it Work?
PoxVerifi is a Google Chrome extension available at the Google Chrome Store. This means you can access the tool while browsing almost any news website where you are already accessing information. After adding the extension to your Chrome browser, you never have to navigate to a different page to fact-check your news.
Anyone using PoxVerifi can vote on the credibility of information. When you click the extension to access PoxVerfi while reading a news article, you will see a pop up ready to take your vote. If you think the article is true, you simply click the smiley face; if you think it is false, click the frowny one.
Three Tools in One
The PoxVerifi extension combines machine learning and crowdsourcing. It allows users to view an accuracy assessment in three parts: automated review, community review, and similar vetted claims.
1. Automated Review
The automated review shows you whether or not the artificial intelligence behind the program predicts the article to be true. Our AI models, trained specifically with monkeypox-related information, have an accuracy rate of 96%.
2. Similar Stories (already checked and labeled)
The similar vetted claims tab lets users see other related articles and compare what different news sources might be saying about the same specific topic.
These stories will are pulled from fact-checking repositories (e.g. Politifact, FullFact, FactCheck.org, etc.)
3. Community Review (aka: Crowdsourcing)
When people’s judgments are combined and averaged together about a topic–even when it is a guess–those judgments are incredibly more accurate than those of individuals. However, this only works if the group follows one very important condition: you must make your decision before seeing how others voted.
Think of an instance when you saw how others reacted before you made a choice and changed what you were going to do based on what you saw others choose. It might only take a few moments to think of an example. Maybe it’s what kind of clothes you bought or how you answered a question in a conversation with a group of people at work or what football team you decided to cheer for… We like fitting into groups, so our decision making can be easily influenced by those around us.
When large groups are asked about factual questions and the group votes independently, the group is highly accurate. This phenomenon is the basis of the crowdsourcing process in PoxVerifi. You can only see the community review after you vote!
This way, you won’t be influenced by trying to fit in with other people’s decisions. But don’t worry. You’re still not on your own; You can view both the automated review and the similar claims before voting.
And after you vote, you will be able to see the community review, letting you compare how your fact-checking abilities stack up with those of your peers.
The PoxVerifi Origin Story
PoxVerifi was inspired by CoVerifi, which was previously developed by The Computational Media Lab, and is used to evaluate news and information related to COVID-19.
Once the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that monkeypox was an infectious disease of international concern in July of 2022, there was a lot of documented misinformation circulating, sometimes spreading even faster than the virus. Akaash Kolluri, high school senior and CML intern, realized that there was something he could do to help. Akaash used CoVerifi as a starting point and created PoxVerifi in a span of 6 weeks.
PoxVerifi is based on many of the same technologies as CoVerifi, but includes several improvements making it easier and more convenient for users. CoVerifi lives on a separate platform that requires users to view news through its host website. PoxVerifi improves the user experience of using a fact-checking tool, since you can access the chrome extension without navigating to a separate webpage.
Why it is important
From COVID-19 and the flu to smallpox and Ebola, when viruses spread, they seize our attention, our thoughts, our anxieties, and our news. In the last few years, we have seen this anxiety take the form of desperate grasping for knowledge of the virus’ source, how it spreads, and how to stay safe.
All people are vulnerable to misinformation, but this is especially true when there is uncertainty and fear surrounding a topic, as there is with new health crises. Unfortunately, some people take advantage of this and flood the internet and social media with disinformation – information that they know is false but use to manipulate people and get them to behave in a way that serves some hidden agenda. This DIS-information (intentional) is then picked up and spread by well-meaning sources who are just trying to share any information they can (MIS-information). With so much false and misleading information at our fingertips, it is getting even more difficult to tell what is true. This only worsens the anxiety that we feel when trying to sift through the constant flood of new information to find what is true.
Monkeypox is related to the smallpox virus and was first discovered in humans in 1970. Until this year, it only affected small regions of the world. However, by August 5, 2022, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reported monkeypox had spread to eighty-eight total countries with 28,220 confirmed cases.
As the disease spread, so did misinformation. We know that the spread of misinformation is harmful to individuals and populations. COVID-19 misinformation was the leading factor disrupting and undermining public health strategies, particularly harming communities of color and Indigenous populations. The disproportionate harm and mortality rates experienced by these communities clearly exposes the dangers of misinformation during a public health emergency.
With monkeypox, the existing misinformation has primarily been harmful for LGBTQ+ communities, but misinformation harms the larger community and public health strategies as a whole. The disease can affect anyone and spreads through skin-to-skin contact, but the majority of reported cases have been identified in cis, gay, and bisexual men and transgender women who have sex with men. This has led to some stigmatizing language surrounding LGBTQ+ individuals, communities, and identities. This stigma is harmful in and of itself, and it leads to less mainstream reporting, delays in medical interventions, and heightened potential for worsened community spread.
There is significant history with LGBTQ+ stigmatization with health and disease. The most striking and harmful example was with the HIV/AIDS epidemic of the 1980s. The misinformation that blamed and targeted LGBTQ+ groups during that time unquestionably prolonged the pandemic, slowed the development of treatments and interventions, and directly contributed to increased suffering and death worldwide.
The WHO explains that HIV can be transmitted via the exchange of a variety of body fluids from infected people. For example, HIV can be transmitted through sexual contact or from a mother to her child during pregnancy and delivery.
The distorted messages which suggested that HIV only affected gay men led to homophobic messaging, further marginalizing LGBTQ+ groups, increasing discriminatory practices, and severely hindering the queer community’s access to healthcare, their equity, and their civil rights. These messages and the epidemic were used as a political, religious, and sociocultural means of condemning LGBTQ+ individuals and relationships.
It’s important to be mindful of this danger and use language that is not stigmatizing to LGBTQ+ populations, particularly by using gender-inclusive language and accurate information. Prioritizing queer populations in healthcare is certainly valid when most documented cases affect LGBTQ+ individuals, but there also needs to be a clear understanding in health communication that monkeypox can affect anyone.
Monkeypox has presented another example of the dangers of mis- and disinformation in healthcare and current misinformation highlights the dangers for LGBTQ+ populations. PoxVerifi, a Google Chrome extension developed by Akaash Kolluri in the Computational Media Lab at UT, combines machine learning and crowdsourcing to help you tell truths from falsehoods.
- Easy to use – click smiley face or frown to judge information
- Google Chrome extension – use it on any website where you get your news
- It is free and does not collect private or identifying data
- All code and data used to create the application is open source
- Provides a framework that future researchers can build on to expand to attack other forms of misinformation.