Blog entry by: Amitabha Bagchi

In the wake of the Government of India’s decision to withdraw the legal tender status of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 banknotes a serious rumour regarding the shortage of salt has led to tensions, mob violence and even death all over the country.  This is not a new problem (“Rumor, the swiftest of all evils,” Virgil says in his Aeneid, “Speed lends her strength, and she finds vigor as she goes.”) What are new are platforms like Whatsapp that allow for vast scale.

In view of this I thought it might be worthwhile to suggest a few rumour detection and control measures that the government might consider adopting for future episodes (this one has already gone viral and will now dissipate in its natural course, hopefully without causing much more damage.) The ideas being put out here are based on the work done by Rudra Mohan Tripathy, Sameep Mehta and myself  (see the conference version that appeared in CIKM 2010 or the expanded journal version that appeared in Intelligent Data Analysis in 2013).

We modelled the spread of rumour as a message spreading and replicating on a network. Our primary suggestion was that the best way of combatting rumour is by attacking it with a similar process, anti-rumour,  which is also a message spreading and replicating through the network the contradicts the rumour and brings attention to the fact that a rumour is spreading. The idea is that on a social network we have some trust in our connections and this trust is used to debunk a rumour. Sometimes if a government says something people are suspicious, a classic example being rumours about vaccinations. However they do trust their friends and if, on a whatsapp group for example, someone forcefully debunks a rumour and encourages people to further debunk it, this might help contain the rumour better than authorised broadcasts through mass media channels.

In brief, here are some ways of approaching this problem based on our research:

  • The government can think of creating a “human infrastructure” of beacons within the network who can be tasked with detecting rumours. The beacons could be principals of government schools, district and block level functionaries and so forth. Such people are naturally embedded within their communities and, consequently, within social networks enabled through Whatsapp or other messaging platforms. When they realise a rumour is spreading they should alert the authorities.
  • A clear and credible rumour debunking message, anti-rumour, should be created and immediately seeded into the network through the beacons who should be instructed to aggressively spread the anti-rumour
  • Public awareness on how to combat rumours must be created. People should be encouraged to spread anti-rumour messages on a priority basis. Once clear methodologies for this are communicated to the public if even a small fraction of them decide to take this on as a civic duty, rumours can be contained at all levels (local, regional and national).

For those who have been observing platforms like Twitter which, in India at least, appears to be very susceptible to special interest trends that are obviously being floated by particular groups, it is not hard to imagine that you do not need a very large number of actors within the network to be acting in concert for a message to spread widely. In our view it is possible to use this phenomenon to combat rumours, to fight fire with fire, as it were.



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