EU grant boosts fight against false coronavirus information

Apr 02, 2020

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THE EUROPEAN Union has awarded €393,000 to The Open University to combat the spread of false COVID-19 information

Harith Alani, Professor of Web Science at the OU, received funding from the EU Horizon 2020 emergency fund for the Health Emergency Response in Interconnected Systems project.

News of the project, which tracks the spread of misinformation about coronavirus on social media, and OU research grant follows the government announcement of the introduction of specialist units to counter false information about coronavirus.

In recent weeks, the government has reported a spike in false and misleading narratives about coronavirus online.

Professor Harith Alani

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.

The three-year project will use automated algorithms to trawl COVID-19 content on social media platforms, such as Twitter and Reddit, and check it against registered fact checkers.

Professor Alani said: “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.

“We will 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.”

OU researchers will look to debunk myths such as COVID-19 being a man-made virus, members of the public can wash the virus away with water and that taking a hot bath will prevent you from catching COVID-19.

The team will also investigate the most effective way to alert users on 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.”

HERoS is an international project involving 11 partners from six countries, which will integrate behavioural and informational dynamics in epidemiological and supply-chain models in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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