How "Truthy" Is that Tweet? Wellesley College Professors Receive $492K National Science Foundation Grant to Study Trustworthiness of Messages on the Social Web

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Researchers to develop an application that will explore digital “trails of trustworthiness” and provide real time information to users about a message sender’s reputation on social media, using Twitter as the testing ground.

With more people turning to social media channels for information before making important medical, financial and political decisions, the need for a reliable way to determine whether or not a message sender is trustworthy is growing. Two professors from the Wellesley College Department of Computer Science have been awarded a $492K grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop an application that examines the origin, authenticity and trustworthiness of messages disseminated on social networks to help users make a better determination about whether information can be trusted.

“Users leave a digital trace behind when they make an announcement,” Eni Mustafaraj, Hess Fellow and Visiting Assistant Professor, explained. “The application will follow those digital traces to determine whether a message sender is reputable, allowing the user to make a determination about whether a message should be trusted.”

Mustafaraj and Panagiotis Metaxas, Professor of Computer Science and Founder of Wellesley College’s Media Arts and Sciences Program, made headlines during the 2010 Massachusetts special congressional election with research that showed how “Twitter bombing,” (which Metaxas described as “creating a large number of Twitter accounts and sending a large number of Tweets within a short period of time,”) can manipulate Google real-time results.

After the 2010 study, the duo had planned to develop software that would allow users to identify spammers, but the project evolved as the researchers’ understanding and the use of Twitter by politicians, activists, media and other users evolved.

“Spam itself is multifaceted and ubiquitous,” Mustafaraj said. “Our focus is more on whether, at any given moment, a user should trust a piece of information that is being broadcasted by a Twitter account.”

Trust will be measured by combing several factors, including: past history of the account; whether other Twitter users find the account trustworthy; whether a user has trusted information from the account in the past (for example, by “retweeting” previous messages); or whether an identical piece of information is surfacing from different, independent sources. “It turns out that spam accounts will rank very low, so they will automatically be classified as untrustworthy,” Mustafaraj said.

“Social media has changed the way we produce and consume information, now everyone is a producer and a consumer,” Mustafaraj said. “While this is great for democratizing participation, it has risks associated with it.”

The application will help social media users identify those risks. To help students think about the risks, funding from the grant will also be used to develop an online course for undergraduates and high school students that examines knowledge sources and explains what critical thinking means in our highly interconnected world. The course content will ultimately be made available to other schools.

About Wellesley College
Since 1875, Wellesley College has been a leader in providing an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Its 500-acre campus near Boston is home to 2,400 undergraduate students from 50 states and 75 countries.

About the National Science Foundation
National Science Foundation is an independent federal agency organized “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; [and] to secure the national defense.” The NSF is the funding source for approximately 20 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities. In many fields such as mathematics, computer science and the social sciences, NSF is the major source of federal backing.

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Anne Yu
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