Emergent serves as rumor tracker for news in a 'networked world'

byAshley Nguyen
Nov 12, 2014 in Fact-Checking and Verification

Emergent, a news-monitoring site, is in the rumor business.

But rather than spreading unsubstantiated rumors online, Emergent helps to separate fact from fiction, tracking news reports that are unverified. The site tracks a rumor in its infancy, from when it’s first spread on social media to when it’s picked up by news outlets.

When a claim is first posted to Emergent, it is labeled as “unverified.” After enough information surfaces, Emergent labels a claim “true” or “false.” It tracks when the rumor emerged, how long it lasted and when it was debunked or proven true. The system also notes if an article about the subject is updated or changed.

For example, news of an oil pipeline explosion in Saudi Arabia began circulating around the Internet on Nov. 5 around 10:30 a.m. The rumor began after Twitter user @ArmedResearch posted four photos of smoke and fire along a road near Sudair, Saudi Arabia, where petroleum company Saudi Aramco has a network of pipelines. The tweet received 166 retweets as news outlets began to pick up the story.

The Telegraph called it “an unconfirmed explosion,” and deemed it a “blast” in its article, noting that crude oil prices rose as the rumor spread around the Internet. The Wall Street Journal reported on the fluctuation in oil prices but remained neutral on whether or not the explosion actually happened. Oil Pro’s headline read, “Huge Explosion At Saudi Aramco Oil Pipeline Evokes Conspiracy Theories.”

But by 3:55 p.m. that day, the rumor that spread like wildfire on the Internet had been debunked.

“Aramco released a statement saying that it was an accidental fire that started after highway workers working in the area caused a ‘small rupture’ while doing their work,” Emergent wrote on its website. “The company also noted that it was a diesel (rather than crude) pipeline.”

The so-called explosion is only one of the many rumors Emergent has tracked using data analysis and visualizations. From a tip that actor Seth Rogen will play Steve Wozniak in an upcoming movie about Steve Jobs — currently unverified — to confirming the Nigerian government and Boko Haram had not reached a ceasefire agreement, Emergent has its eyes on the facts.

Emergent also uses colorful graphics to show how widely stories were shared across social media platforms.

Developed by Craig Silverman, a current Tow Center for Digital Journalism fellow at Columbia University, Emergent surfaced in late September after Silverman presented an initial version at the Online News Association conference in Chicago.

Silverman worked with journalist Adam Hooper and the software development company Normative to build Emergent, and as part of his fellowship research, the team will continue to develop the site.

“This project enables me to conduct quantitative research to learn more about how rumors are being treated by news orgs, and what can be done to better debunk false information in a networked world,” Silverman wrote on Tow Center’s website where you can also track his progress.

This is not Silverman’s first foray into the rumor mill. He writes the Regret the Error blog for Poynter, which fact-checks news reports that print misinformation. Along with 21 others, Silverman wrote a verification handbook for the European Journalism Centre. The handbook, also co-edited by Silverman, covers how to create a verification process in newsrooms and authenticating user-generated content.

See a rumor making its way around the web? Email Silverman and see if it makes it to Emergent. Read more about the inital prototyping of Emergent by reading Normative's post on Medium.

Main image CC-licensed by Flickr via Eric Fischer.