Efforts to rid Twitter of false posts are to be the focus of a new UK-led study.
During the 2011 riots in London, there were widespread and untrue claims that London Zoo animals had been set free.
Social media has also been used in global conflicts to spread dangerous and damaging rumours about what is going on.
Now, an international group of researchers led by the University of Sheffield aims to find a way to verify information quickly and source it so that journalists, governments, emergency services and others can know what is really happening – and whether they need to act.
The EU-funded project is building a computer system that is aimed at dispelling urban myths before they have a chance to get significant attention, rather like a lie detector.
The project is to be called Pheme, after the character of Greek mythology who is said to have pried into the affairs of mortals and gods, and repeated what she learned until everyone knew.
Pheme will 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 is done with malicious intent.
It will also automatically categorise sources to assess their authority, such as news outlets, individual journalists, experts, potential eyewitnesses and members of the public.
It will also look for a history and background, to help spot where Twitter accounts have been created purely to spread false information.
Pheme will search for sources that corroborate or deny information, and plot how the conversations on social networks evolve, using all of this information to assess whether it is true or false.
Team leader Dr Kalina Bontcheva explained: “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.
“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.”
Twitter already offers public figures and organisations the opportunity to become “verified” users, which provides their Twitter account with a blue tick to prove that they are who they say they are.