By James Dacey
“On 27 August…Mars will look as large as the full Moon.”
This was a sentence from a widely circulated e-mail in 2005, in the lead up to one of the closest encounters between Earth and Mars in recorded history.
That our neighbouring planet could appear as prominent as the Moon is, of course, complete claptrap. Since the “Mars hoax” first appeared in 2003, it has re-emerged several times over the past decade.
The Mars hoax is an example of a “meme”, a piece of content or an idea that is spread virally across Internet networks. These days, memes such as this can spread with increasing speed and reach, thanks to the ever-growing expansion of social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter.
Now, however, researchers at MODUL University Vienna are setting out on the ambitious task of assessing the truthfulness of information that goes viral on social-media sites. The folks behind the project, called PHEME, say that one of their major aims is to acquire an improved understanding of the types of dubious information that are most likely to spread across networks.
To take Twitter as an example, anyone who uses this site knows full well that it is provides a daily torrent of truths, half-truths, grains of truth and downright lies. In most cases, this information is fairly harmless and the communities that use Twitter are generally pretty good at self-correcting information and exposing the purveyors of untruths. But when it comes to claims supposedly backed up by insider knowledge or a specialist, the veracity of information cannot always be “dealt with” so easily.
Take the Mars hoax. It would be easy for a physicist of the smug variety to sit back and deride the stupidity of the public for swallowing this misinformation. But perhaps one of the main reasons that the meme keeps re-appearing is because its claim is not immediately absurd (at least not to me).
Intrigued by the scale and audacity of the PHEME project, I got in touch with one of the project leaders, Arno Scharl, to find out more. I put it to him that his mission – dredging huge rivers of social information for falsehoods – sounds rather tricky given that many of the most interesting debates on social media do not involves clear “truths” and “lies”.
Scharl says he accepts the difficulty of the task ahead, which is why he will be drawing on the expertise of wide set of people, including Web data handlers, linguistic and semantics experts, Web visualization specialists and people involved in crowdsourcing initiatives. He describes the project’s approach as “heuristic”, meaning that the focus will be on the exploration of the area, rather than testing fixed hypotheses.
Currently, the team is collecting information from Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Google+. Additional sites may be added at later phases in the project.
When I asked about the motivation for the project, Scharl said that the outcomes will be of interest to commercial companies that are keen on tracking social-media trends to see how their brands are perceived.
But more interestingly for physicists, Scharl says that he is hoping to improve understanding of the way climate change is covered in the media. “Climate change is a rather complex and dynamic domain, where misleading arguments by minority stakeholders often receive more attention than they actually deserve when judged by their scientific merit,” he says. The PHEME project builds on Scharl’s previous work in developing the webtool ecoresearch.net, which is used to track and analyse coverage of climate change.
Scharl hopes that the PHEME project will benefit society and citizens by enabling government organizations, such as advice and emergency services, to keep track of rumours and misinformation spreading online. “PHEME will create instant feedback loops and show how digital content is received, understood and propagated in social networks,” he says. “By uncovering memes, it will enable citizens to take informed decisions and act to prevent rumours spreading across the media.”
So the next time you hear that Mars is looming on the horizon, you might have some help in spotting the hoax.