What is (social media) truth?

An EU-funded project (dubbed Pheme after the mythological Greek famed for spreading rumours) is attempting to create a system that can automatically verify rumours as they spread on social media.


Social networks are not always a force for good, in terms of spreading mis-information, and Sheffield University cites examples of accusations of vote-rigging in Kenyan elections, reports that Barack Obama was Muslim and claims that the animals were set free from London Zoo during the 2011 riots.

In all of these cases, it says, “an ability to quickly verify information and track its provenance would enable journalists, governments, emergency services, health agencies and the private sector to respond more effectively”.

The three-year project is a collaboration between five universities in the UK, Germany and Austria – 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 swissinfo.ch

It aims to classify online rumours into four types: 

  • speculation, such as whether interest rates might rise;
  • controversy, such as over the MMR vaccine;
  • misinformation, where something untrue is spread unwittingly;
  • disinformation, where it’s done with malicious intent.

“There was a suggestion after the 2011 riots that social networks should have been shut down, to prevent the rioters using them to organise,” said Dr Kalina Bontcheva, from the Department of Computer Science in the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Engineering. “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.”

See also: The Rumour Monitor

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