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Taking on the whispers

Rumours – true or false – can spread fast thanks to the internet, and may have security or other consequences, as during the August 2011 riots. Researchers are aiming to build a system that will automatically verify online rumours.

Social networks have been used to spread accusations, whether of vote-rigging in Kenyan elections, allegations that Barack Obama was Muslim or claims that the animals were set free from London Zoo during the 2011 riots. In such cases an ability to quickly verify information and track its provenance would enable journalists, governments, emergency services, health agencies and private security to respond better.

Lead researcher is Dr Kalina Bontcheva, from the Department of Computer Science in the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Engineering. She says: “There was a suggestion after the 2011 riots that social networks should have been shut down, to prevent the rioters using them to organise. But social networks also provide useful information – the problem is that it all happens so fast and we can’t quickly sort truth from lies. This makes it difficult to respond to rumours, for example, for the emergency services to quash a lie in order to keep a situation calm. Our system aims to help with that, by tracking and verifying information in real time.”

An EU-funded project aims to classify online rumours into four types: speculation – such as whether interest rates might rise; controversy – as over the MMR vaccine; misinformation, where something untrue is spread unwittingly; and disinformation, where it’s done out of malice.

The system will also automatically categorise sources to assess their authority, such as news outlets, individual journalists, experts, potential witnesses, members of the public or automated ‘bots’. It will also look for a history and background, to help spot where Twitter accounts have been created purely to spread false information.

It will search for sources that corroborate or deny the information, and plot how the conversations on social networks evolve, using all these details to assess whether it is true or false. The results will be displayed to the user in a visual dashboard, to enable them to easily see whether a rumour is taking hold.

Dr Bontcheva adds: “We can already handle many of the challenges involved, such as the sheer volume of information in social networks, the speed at which it appears and the variety of forms, from tweets, to videos, pictures and blog posts. But it’s currently not possible to automatically analyse, in real time, whether a piece of information is true or false and this is what we’ve now set out to achieve.”

The software will be evaluated in two places. For digital journalism, it will be tested by the online arm of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, For healthcare, it will be tested by the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, where they aim to look at new recreational drugs trending in online discussions and then find out how quickly these feature in patients’ medical records and discussions with doctors.

The three-year project, called Pheme, is between five universities – Sheffield, Warwick, King’s College London, Saarland in Germany and MODUL University Vienna in Austria – and four companies – ATOS in Spain, iHub in Kenya, Ontotext in Bulgaria and

The project is named after the Pheme of Greek mythology, who was said to have ‘pried into the affairs of mortals and gods, then repeated what she learned, starting off at first with just a dull whisper, but repeating it louder each time, until everyone knew’.

After the 2011 English riots, one of the project partners, Professor Rob Procter from the University of Warwick, worked with the LSE and The Guardian’s interactive team to manually analyse the spread of rumours on Twitter during the 2011 riots. This took several months – see The Pheme system will aim to do something similar, but automatically and immediately.


Also at the University of Sheffield is Dr Farida Vis (Information School), a co-investigator on the original Reading the Riots project. Dr Vis is a social media scholar and has published in this area. She sits on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Social Media.


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