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New project to identify how online rumours affect our health

Posted on 20/02/2014

In the digital age, rumours – both true and false - spread fast, often with far reaching consequences. Online reviews of drugs, access to advice or diagnostic information have changed the relationship between patients and their doctors. 

In order to map how rumours spread through social media translate into patient behaviour, researchers at King’s College London are part of a newEU project called PHEME.

The three year project is an international collaboration led by the University of Sheffield. The project will first involve building a system to automatically verify online rumours as they spread around the globe.

It will classify online rumours into four categories: speculation, controversy, misinformation (something untrue spread unwittingly) and disinformation (something untrue spread with malicious intent). It will also automatically categorise rumours to assess their authority, such as news outlets, journalists, experts, eye witnesses, members of the public or automated ‘bots’. By looking at users’ history and background, it will help spot where Twitter accounts have been created purely to spread false information. 

Researchers at King’s College London will then use the system to understand how online rumours and other social media occurences make their way into the clinical setting, by comparing data from the system to electronic medical records.

The work at King’s will be led by Professor Robert Stewart and Dr Anna Kolliakou from the Institute of Psychiatry.

Professor Stewart says: “Public health professionals have started to undertake social media surveillance for various purposes, for example real-time tracking of flu epidemics or examining attitudes towards vaccination. In this context, truthfulness, rumours and spam become a major challenge. Given the volume of content and the speed at which it spreads, there is a strong need for automated algorithms to detect rumours, to help public health researchers pull together information from online platforms.” 

The researchers will investigate topics including:

  • Legal highs & drugs: The temporal relationship between the emergence of new licit and illicit drugs in social media and their appearance in clinical records.
  • Patient care: The impact of mental-health concerns and rumours, such as those relating to medication, on clinical presentations and prescribing practices
  • Teenage self-harm: The impact of self-harm and suicide occurrences in social media and mental health in adolescents and young adults. 

The ability to spot social media occurrences as they appear could provide alerts to health services of issues that may be raised by patients. Additionally, timely national media interventions could also be implemented to ensure that online information is as accurate and well-informed as possible. It is acknowledged that online material might contain useful new information which requires further investigation – for example, early indications of medication side-effects that would otherwise be missed.

Dr Kolliakou adds: “Increasing access to information online and the rise of social media have at the same time empowered patients with information about their conditions and available treatments, but also exposed them to more false information. PHEME will provide clinicians and public health practitioners with much needed ‘rumour intelligence’”

The case studies carried out at King’s will use anonymised electronic medical records from the Clinical Record Interactive Search (CRIS) system at the National Institute for Health Research Biomedical Research Centre (NIHR BRC) for Mental Health at the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and King’s College London. 

The work at King’s is one of two PHEME evaluations in real-world domains. The system will also be tested for digital journalism by the online arm of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, 

The project is a collaboration between the University of Sheffield, King’s College London, the Universities of Warwick, Saarland (Germany) and MODUL University Vienne (Austria), as well as four companies, ATOS (Spain), iHub (Kenya), Ontext and

For further information, please contact Seil Collins, Press Officer, Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College London, (+44) 207 848 5377

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