Rhodri Marsden: Twitter says my local Primark is on fire, but I'm not so sure
Rhodri Marsden is the Technology Columnist for The Independent; he has also written about crumpets, Captain Beefheart, rude place names and string. He's also a musician who plays in the band Scritti Politti, and won the under-10 piano category at the 1980 Watford Music Festival by playing a piece called "Silver Trumpets" with verve and aplomb.
Wednesday 26 February 2014
During the riots of August 2011, I sat in my flat in Tooting, south London, watching one version of the news unfold on the television, and an even more startling one unfold on social media.
The sheer volume of incidents being reported and shared online gave the distinct impression that our inner cities were being systematically destroyed. One described how the Tooting branch of Primark had been set on fire and was currently ablaze; I looked at the tweet in amazement, wondering where on earth my neighbours and I would now source our cheap undergarments.
But the next morning I got up early, went for a walk and discovered that it was fine. Not burned to the ground. Not even singed around the edges. It was made up.
It won't be news to anyone that the internet is riddled with untruths and inaccuracies, or that our ability to distinguish between fact and fiction seems to be wilting rapidly; we sway uneasily between outright gullibility, believing anything that's served up with sufficient gravitas, and a refusal to believe anything at all – a path that inevitably leads down to the murky waters of conspiracy theory.
A few weeks ago, pictures circulated online of the Sphinx and Egyptian pyramids covered in snow – a state of affairs that many people seemed perfectly happy to believe until it was pointed out that it was actually a picture of a model of the Sphinx taken at a Japanese theme park. Which is all pretty frivolous and inconsequential, but when these kind of rumours have the capacity to affect our wellbeing – misinformation about contagious diseases or natural disasters, say – it becomes more of a problem.
A project called Pheme, announced a few days ago, aims to use computer power to distinguish social media fact from social media fiction. A combined effort of five universities and led by Dr Kalina Bontcheva, of the University of Sheffield's engineering department, it will attempt to analyse online rumour to determine its source and reliability, before classifying it as speculation, controversy, misinformation or malicious disinformation.
Storyful, a project launched last year by Irish journalist Mark Little, does a similar thing via a process of crowdsourcing, but Bontcheva believes that a lot of that donkey work can be automated, giving Pheme's users an unbiased, unsullied overview of a developing story.
So, in the same way as we might visit that scourge of the urban myth, snopes.com, to determine whether a forwarded email contains the tiniest shred of truth, the Pheme dashboard might become a source of truth in an increasingly chaotic social media environment. But this is no "lie detector", as some have breathlessly reported; such a project would only ever be as reliable as the sources it deems trustworthy, and people can make mistakes. (It's only a few months since the Red Cross accidentally posted a terrifying map that massively over-estimated the size of Typhoon Haiyan because they'd forgotten to scale the image.)
And it also begs the question of whether we care any more. Can we actually be bothered to check and verify before spreading rumours? After all, we already have that option available to us by using our own brains, and often we don't bother. We seem to prefer participating in a deafening chorus of "OMG", wallowing in shock and awe, rather than sitting down quietly for a sober consideration of what the truth might actually be.
Life & Style blogs
Report finds English children among the unhappiest in world
Anal sex study reveals climate of 'coercion'
Ice Bucket Challenge: ALS Association doesn't yet know what to do with all of the money raised
The science of saturated fat: A big fat surprise about nutrition?
The best gowns on the red carpet of 2014 Venice Film Festival
Exclusive: We share blame for creating 'jihad generation', says Muslim strategist
Robin Williams Emmys tribute led by Billy Crystal criticised for including 'racist' joke about Muslim woman
The Rotherham child abuse scandal is a tale of apologists, misogyny and double standards
Scottish independence TV debate: Pumped-up Alex Salmond bounces back in bruising second round against Alistair Darling
Do you realise just how foolish the UK looks?
Ukip Douglas Carswell defection: Tory MP jumps ship to join Nigel Farage
- 1 Ashya King missing: Police hunt five-year-old boy with brain tumour snatched from Southampton hospital by his parents
- 2 Notting Hill Carnival: Woman shares selfie after being ‘punched in face for telling man to stop groping her’
- 3 Daily Show's Jon Stewart destroys Fox News for its Ferguson coverage
- 4 Botched ice bucket challenge leaves man critically injured after plane drops hundreds of gallons of water
- 5 Friends reunion: Jennifer Aniston, Lisa Kudrow and Courteney Cox perform mini sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live
- < Previous
- Next >
iJobs Gadgets & Tech
£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...
£17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...
£19000 - £24000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group have be...
£25000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are cur...