W&M student develops algorithm to model Twitter politics and ‘fake news’

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Cheng Li was awarded the Northrop Grumman Corporation Award for his development of an algorithm that can predict political leanings of social media accounts without reading individual tweets. Li is a Ph.D. student in computer science. (Photo by Stephen Salpukas)

Cheng Li’s work gives political analysts a new set of tools to use in their quest to understand the role of social media in deciding elections, but he is upfront about what he brings to the table.

“We’re not political scientists,” he says. “We’re computer scientists.”

Li is a Ph.D. student in William & Mary’s Department of Computer Science. He worked with Zhenming Liu, an assistant professor in the department, on a project that presents what is perhaps the best way yet to model the swirl and snarl of political interactions on Twitter.

Li has been awarded the Northrop Grumman Corporation Award for his work. The award recognizes excellence in scholarship in the natural and computational sciences. He joined other award-winning William & Mary graduate students honored as part of the 16th Annual Graduate Research Symposium March 24-25 at William & Mary’s Sadler Center.

The computer science project includes a way to look at how “fake news” is propagated through social media. Li notes that Facebook and Twitter are widely credited and blamed for influencing national decisions such as Brexit and U.S. presidential elections, but analysis of the role of social networks in the decision-making process remains “speculative and crude” — even though the social media have been in popular use for more than a decade.

“We want to make sense of Twitter users’ political leanings,” Li said.

He added that it seems that there is a trend toward increasing political polarization in the United States, with evidence indicating that a left-leaning individual tends to move more to the left. The same…

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