Lies, rumours, smears and social media

Rumours, myths, lies and smears have always spread widely in a wide variety of societies throughout history. In Rome graffiti could smear a neighbour or a Senator and quiet chats in the bathhouse could spread them further.

In 18th C France they provoked riots and helped inspire a revolution. In 20th C Britain they suppressed opposition to the hanging of Roger Casement although in the latter case the information provided was true – just appalling to the hypocritical moralists of the day.  Liberals spread some pretty disgusting smears about Paul Keating and Julia Gillard probably suffered more from the same sort of stuff than any Australian PM. In recent months the same has happened to Bill Shorten with various people assuring the blog that the ‘shocking facts’ about his past with some girl would bring him down. We now know what the allegations were and, although Shorten has denied it all and the police are taking no action, we can expect more of the same – perhaps even with News tabloids leading the way probably without the self-righteous attitude to disclosure shown over the leaking of their accounts and more the initial insouciance with which they treated phone hacking and payments to Inspector Plod.

But what has changed in the worlds of rumour and smears of course is the way social media can spread them. We can all discover what the suppression order about alleged banknote printing bribes was concealing. We can all see precisely what Shorten was accused of.

So it is inevitable that there are efforts to ensure that even social media chatter is held accountable and can be checked. One of the latest has been discussed in Bruce Schneier’s invaluable Crypto-Gram newsletter. Earlier this year he drew attention to a new EU funded project which would track and verify information on social media. A lot of PR agencies are offering such services and there are a range of sites where you can check out various claims. But not even the NSA and the CIA can keep track of them all and sort out the disinformation contained in them even from their own disinformation. However, a team led by Dr Kalina Bontcheva from the Department of Computer Science in the University of Sheffield’s Faculty of Engineering is having a go. See

In the University’s media announcement of the project it said:  “In our digital age, rumours both true and false – spread fast, often with far-reaching consequences. An international group of researchers, led by the University of Sheffield, is aiming to build a system that will automatically verify online rumours as they spread around the globe. Social networks have been used to spread accusations of vote-rigging in Kenyan elections, allege that Barack Obama was Muslim and claim that the animals were set free from London Zoo during the 2011 riots. In all of these cases – and many more – an ability to quickly verify information and track its provenance would enable journalists, governments, emergency services, health agencies and the private sector to respond more effectively.”

Dr Bontcheva said: “There was a suggestion after the (UK) 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.”

The report continues “The EU-funded project aims to 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’s done with malicious intent. It will search for sources that corroborate or deny the information, and plot how the conversations on social networks evolve, using all of this information to assess whether it is true or false. The results will be displayed to the user in a visual dashboard, to enable them to easily see whether a rumour is taking hold.”

Dr Bontcheva adds: “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.” The three-year project is called Pheme from Greek mythology. See

The blog is not sure how effective it will be, even if it is possible and whether it can be effective in the Gresham’s Law analogous environment of public discourse. Moreover, while we know social media is important we are not that sure why – other than its ubiquity and massive use – nor how it actually works to shape or change attitudes. Is it simply a matter of amplification of a trend or of increased speed of dissemination of information? Moreover some research on social media advertising and corporate participation on social media suggests we should have some ambivalence about how effective it is.

The blog is probably a reactionary because, while it recognises the significance of the social media revolution may be similar to the effect of the Gutenberg revolution, it has a nagging suspicion that the Lutheran content may have been more significant in that revolution than most social media content is today.  Indeed, social media may be the massage rather than the message and the fundamental truism of PR has not changed: it’s the right message in the right medium to the right audiences that gets the job done.

Meanwhile in the spirit of the medium is the massage one of Australia’s pre-eminent PR esearchers, Jim Macnamara , has a new edition of the book The 21st Century Media (R)evolution: Emergent Communication Practices out where he argues “that the key changes are located in practices rather than technologies and that public communication practices are emergent in highly significant ways.” Jim also has an excellent new book out – Journalism & PR: Unpacking ‘Spin’, Stereotypes, and Media Myths which the blog will review later.