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Harnessing the Virality of Rumors to Spread Facts

Principal Investigator (PI): Assoc Prof Alton Chua

Co-Principal Investigator (Co-PI): Assoc Prof Dion Goh, Assoc Prof Augustine Pang, Professor Lim Ee Peng (SMU)

Collaborators: Nil

Funding Agency: MOE Tier 2

Start Date: Jul 2015

End Date: On-going

Abstract: During the 2013 haze crisis in Singapore, rumors swirled furiously on social media despite official information issued by the authorities. The incident illustrates the efficacy of rumor diffusion over the dissemination of facts. In this proposed project, we use rumors as a blanket term to refer to any online information that is either false or speculative within the context of a given incident. Conversely, we use facts as an antithetical term to rumors, which means they refer to online information that corrects or verifies those rumors. Rumors are fueled by users who give spurious information the same weight as news from credible sources, and spread it to their network of friends. As this process takes place recursively, the ranks of rumor mongers swell. Facts, on the other hand, usually originate from a singular official source. Their spread is contingent on users’ rationality and altruism. Moreover, users’ negativity bias on received information tends to favor the spread of rumor over facts (Marano, 2003).

Most research is trained on the spread of rumors rather than of facts. Among the few studies that examine the spread of facts as a countermeasure against rumors, they either lack empirical evidence (e.g. Rabajante, 2012), lack validation from stakeholders (e.g. Tripathy, et al., 2010) or lack generalizability (Holton & Edmondson, 2012). Hitherto, little attempt has been made to study how the spread of facts can be enhanced to fight against rumors in social media through an interdisciplinary perspective.

The research question of this proposed project is “How can we spread facts effectively to deal with rumor in social media?” We argue that a feasible strategy to deal with rumors is one that does not completely rely on a centralized mode to spread facts, but one that mirrors the decentralization nature of rumor diffusion. We also argue that the study of rumors and facts diffusion in social media is a complex phenomenon cutting across multiple disciplines. Hence, our intention is to harness the virality of rumors to spread facts from an interdisciplinary perspective encompassing different fields such as socio-cognition, communication studies and technology. In gist, we seek first to understand the interplay of various factors that gives a rumor its viral nature, and thereafter adapt and apply these factors to enhance fact diffusion. To address our research question, we formulate the following two objectives:

  • To investigate factors that fuel the virality of a rumor in social media. This objective extends current literature by identifying multi-level factors that fuel the virality of a rumor. The basic question of “what makes a rumor spread so widely and quickly” will be addressed.

  • To investigate, adapt and apply the viral factors of rumors for fact diffusion in social media. This objective leans on the previous to uncover important aspects of rumors that could be used to enhance the spread of facts. Questions such as “how can the content of facts be crafted to enhance virality?” and “to whom should facts be sent to achieve maximum reach?” will be addressed.

The proposed project holds significance on two main counts. First, it addresses one of the major prevailing menaces faced by organizations, governments and society from time to time: rumor mongering on social media. Second, the proposed project offers a better understanding of rumors and facts through an interdisciplinary lens.