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Unraveling the ‘tangled knot’ of online news

By Katherine Fletcher, Special to Western News

Victoria Rubin

Victoria Rubin knows the truth is out there. It is just getting harder to find.

“With the new ways of generating, sharing and obtaining content online, most users want to make their decisions based on credible sources who share their expertise with the best intentions in mind – meaning without lying,” said the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS) professor.

But sorting the truth from so much fiction can pose a daunting task.

Identifying deliberately deceptive information in online news is the subject of Rubin’s current research endeavour, Digital Deception Detection. Conducted through Rubin’s Language and Information Technology Research Lab, the project aims to design systems that either alert users to fact-check information of dubious quality or filter out misleading statements.

“Most news stories are formatted alike. There is no clear visual distinction between a news piece from The New York Times and The Onion, for example. If the source attribution is unclear, or its credibility unknown, readers might mistake parody for legitimate news,” Rubin said. “Our task is to come up with a satirical news detection system that flags satirical news parody as one type of ‘fake’ or ‘deceptive’ news, based on how the news is written regardless of the presence or absence of clear attribution.”

In April 2015, Rubin was awarded a three-year Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) Insight Grant to fund the Digital Deception Detection project.

“The context of ‘news’ is new to the deception detection community since the majority of the work is in interpersonal psychology, law enforcement and airport/border security,” Rubin said. “Applying some of the methods to everyday life news behaviours is tricky since news can be biased, subjective, erroneous, but not necessarily deceptive. It’s a tangled knot that we are just starting to unravel.”

Rubin and her students are aiming for software prototypes to support the work of newsrooms, news aggregators and end-users, namely news readers.

At an Association for Information Science and Technology annual meeting in November, Rubin, along with Library and Information Science (LIS) PhD students Yimin Chen and Niall Conroy, presented three short papers related to the project discussing the role of library and information science in deception detection. LIS researchers have been interested in issues of online credibility for a while; news verification is an important issue within certain streams of LIS.

Rubin and her team are connected virtually on a daily basis. They meet weekly for two hours and everyone has a role to fill – be it running data analysis script, collecting data or managing a dataset, researching specific concepts or writing a paper.

“The work is intense and demanding, but we are having lots of laughs given the data we work with are satirical news pieces,” Rubin said.

When considering graduate students who are interested in working with her in her lab, Rubin places emphasis on good writing, self-motivation, and enthusiasm.

“When people are curious, or perhaps even fearless, or at least confident in their ability to master something that appears hard at first, they immediately catch my attention. It is enormously gratifying to work with smart, self-driven individuals, regardless of their titles, age and gender,’ Rubin concluded. “I learn to listen to what they have to say, what worries them, what matters to them and how their life might be different from when I was a student.”