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London - University researchers are working on a system that could quash rumours spreading on social media by identifying whether information is accurate.
Five European universities, led by Sheffield in northern England, are cooperating on a system that could automatically identify whether a rumour originates from a reliable source and can be verified.
The researchers said they hope the system will allow governments, emergency services, media and the private sector to respond more effectively to claims emerging and spreading on social media before they get out of hand.
The three-year, European Union-funded project, called PHEME, is an attempt to filter out the nuggets of factual information from the avalanche of ill-informed comment on Twitter and Facebook.
“Social networks are rife with lies and deception,” the project leaders said in a statement. Such messages can have far-reaching consequences, but there is so much of it that it is impossible to analyse it in real time.
Claims during the 2011 riots in London that the London Eye observation wheel was on fire or that all the animals were let out of London Zoo were given as examples of false rumours that spread rapidly via the Internet.
The research is being led by Dr Kalina Bontcheva of Sheffield University's Faculty of Engineering.
“The problem is that it all happens so fast and we can't quickly sort truth from lies,” she said.
“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.”
The project is trying to identify four types of information - speculation, controversy, misinformation, and disinformation - and model their spread on social networks.
It will try to use three factors to establish veracity: the information itself (lexical, syntactic and semantic); cross-referencing with trustworthy data sources; and the information's diffusion.
The results can be displayed to the user on screen.
“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,” said Bontcheva.
“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 Times newspaper said the EU would meet most of the predicted 4.3 million euros costs of the project and a final version is hoped for within 18 months.
The project is a collaboration between five universities - Sheffield, King's College London, Warwick in England, Saarland in Germany and MODUL University Vienna - and four companies - ATOS in Spain, iHub in Kenya, Ontotext in Bulgaria and swissinfo.ch.