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Emergency funding to track the spread of false information about COVID-19

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An OU academic has received emergency funding to track the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 on social media platforms.

Harith Alani, Professor of Web Science in the OU’s Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, has been awarded €393,000 from the €2.85 million EU H2020 for the Health Emergency Response in Interconnected Systems (HERoS) project.

Debunking myths

Professor Alani and his team will track the extent of misinformation about COVID-19 in social media content so that it can be brought to the attention of policymakers and be used to alert social media users of the extent to which they are spreading false information.

“For example, one of the myths that needs to be debunked is that COVID-19 is a man-made virus,” said Professor Alani. “Or others are that we can wash the virus down with water or that taking a hot bath will prevent you from catching COVID-19.”

These are just three of the many myths that Professor Alani and his team will research in HERoS, a project with 11 other partners with an overall remit to integrate behavioural and informational dynamics in epidemiological and supply-chain models in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Unearthing rumours

The OU research, which will begin on 1 April 2020 and will run for three years, during which time, it will use automated algorithms to trawl COVID-19 content on social media platforms such as Twitter and Reddit, and then to check it against registered fact checkers.

“We already have tools and algorithms that have been doing this for generic misinformation in CO-INFORM; a project that aims to support people, journalists, and policymakers with better misinformation identification and tracking tools.” said Professor Alani. “We can extend and use such algorithms to find the claims that are being made about COVID-19, check them against facts from trusted and authoritative sources, and produce knowledge and graphs for policymakers and health influencers, showing which rumours are spreading more than others, where, and when.”

Correcting beliefs

This research will also investigate the most effective way to alert users of Twitter and Reddit of the extent to which they are spreading false information in their posts.

“We know that we can use this information to show individuals how much false information they have been circulating on social media, and we need to look at how to correct people’s beliefs in a more effective and personalised fashion,” said Professor Alani. “Although we are seeing that this misinformation is spreading, we don’t yet know the effect of this on this type of crisis.”

Global team

HERoS will be coordinated by Hanken School of Economics and includes 11 partners, including three non-governmental organisations, which covers all aspects of the epidemics response in Asia and Europe from different angles.

The other research partners in the HERoS-project are:

  • Svenska Handelshogskolan, Finland
  • Technische Universiteit, Delft, Netherlands
  • Stitching Vu, Netherlands
  • NHG Consulting OY, Finland
  • Centrum Badan Kosmicznych Polskiej Akademi Nauk, Poland
  • Squadron Sp. z o.o, Poland
  • Polish Center for International Aid, Poland
  • ARTTIC, France
  • Associazione Della Croce Rossa Italiana, Italy
  • People to People Health Foundation (Project Hope) - Branch Office Skopje, Macedonia

Find out more about OU research in the Faculty of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

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