Rhodri Marsden: Twitter says my local Primark is on fire, but I'm not so sure

 

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.

twitter.com/rhodri

News
peopleHere's what Stephen Fry would say
Sport
Serena Williams holds the Australian Open title
sportAustralia Open 2015 final report
Sport
footballLive: All the latest from today's Premier League matches
News
Nick Clegg playing 'Palin or prom queen'
newsNick Clegg on TV's The Last Leg
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Arts and Entertainment
This weekend's 'Big Hero 6' by Disney Animation Studios
arts + ents
News
i100
News
Budapest, 1989. Sleepware and panties.
newsDavid Hlynsky's images of Soviet Union shop windows shine a light on our consumerist culture
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
News
In humans, the ability to regulate the expression of genes through thoughts alone could open up an entirely new avenue for medicine.
science
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Recruitment Genius: Web Design Apprentice

    £6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a well established websit...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior .Net Application Developer

    £40000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: .Net / SQL Developer

    £25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A skilled .NET developer with e...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Technical Support Engineer - PC/Mac

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company are cur...

    Day In a Page

    Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

    Isis hostage crisis

    The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
    Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

    The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

    Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

    Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
    Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

    Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

    This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
    Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

    Cabbage is king again

    Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
    11 best winter skin treats

    Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

    Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
    Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

    Paul Scholes column

    The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
    Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

    Frank Warren's Ringside

    No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
    Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

    The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

    Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

    Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
    Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
    Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

    Comedians share stories of depression

    The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
    Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

    Has The Archers lost the plot?

    A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
    English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

    14 office buildings added to protected lists

    Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

    Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee