Did you hear the thing about the Florida woman who implanted a third breast in order to be "unattractive to men"? The one who is filming "her daily life in Tampa to show the struggles she faces because of her surgery"?
She didn't, and she is not. The whole thing—for better or for worse—was a hoax.
The Internet moves quickly. Rumors emerge, intentionally and not; they spread, intentionally and not. There's a reason, of course, that "wildfire" is such a common metaphor when it comes to describing this stuff: Rumors, once sparked, don't just spread extremely quickly; they are also extremely difficult to contain. And on top of everything else, it is extremely hard to predict which direction they'll take as they spread.
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Enter Emergent.info. The site, launched today after two months of testing and data-gathering, is hoping to change that by tracking rumors that arise in (pretty much) real time. As Craig Silverman, the rumor researcher who created the site, told me: "It's aiming to be a real-time monitoring of claims that are emerging in the press."
Emergent.info works through a combination of human and algorithmic processing. Silverman and a research assistant find rumors that are being reported in the mainstream media—most often, stories that bubble up through social media and get spotted by one outlet … and then, from there, picked up by other outlets. Then they search Google News, which aggregates various news outlets' take on the story. They gather those stories and enter them into their database, classifying them according to the outlet and to how each of the outlets is reporting them. Some will report rumors not as rumors, but rather as simply true or simply false; the majority, however, simply report the fact that they have heard them. Often they'll hedge that repetition with caveats like "Sources:" or "Rumor:" or "Unconfirmed:" in headlines or texts. Just as often, however, they'll be more subtle in their warnings. In the case of the Tri-Breasted Lady, many places simply repeated the rumor as fact, their main additional caveat being a well-placed "WTF."