In Review: Summer research tackles fake news, gun violence, autonomous vehicles

Sunday, September 9, 2018 - 6:15pm

While you were away this summer, you may have missed some big stories from Ann Arbor. The Daily will be publishing recaps of the summer’s breaking news.

Over the summer University of Michigan researchers developed a system that can detect fake news better than a human. The system, pioneered by Rada Mihalcea, a professor of computer science and engineering, identifies linguistic cues such as grammar, diction and sophistication level in fake news articles.

According to the project, the system can correctly identify fake news with 76 percent accuracy compared to the 70 percent success rate of humans. The study’s participants were tasked with transforming actual news stories into falsified stories with a similar journalistic level of writing. 

“We built an algorithm that analyzes language,” Mihalcea said. “We started by collecting fake news and legitimate news. We fed the algorithm with data we collected and the algorithm learns the characteristics of fake news so when you feed it news it can flag illegitimate news.”

The inspiration for the project came from websites and social media outlets’ need to decipher fake news in their feeds. The massive influx of news stories makes it difficult for consumers quickly identify fake news, and Mihalcea said this system could weed out inaccurate stories faster for big engines like Google.

“The distributors of news, for instance, those who collect news and share it, could have a system like this to flag sources that may not be legitimate,” Mihalcea said. “And for journalists themselves to find out if it’s fake news or not.”

Mihalcea said the algorithm is not yet meant for the general user, but that with more development, engineers can create an app that could help anyone identify the validity of the digital news they view.

Researchers are not the only ones grappling with how to address fake news. Last fall, the University offered a one-credit class titled "Fake News, Lies, and Propaganda: How to Sort Fact from Fiction" aimed at helping students dispel bias in the media. In an earlier interview with Michigan News, Angela Dillard, LSA associate dean for undergraduate education, said holding a critical view of media is an essential aspect of a liberal arts education. 

Gun regulation research

The University also conducted research on gun regulation. A study published in JAMA Pediatrics in July determined teens and young adults are in favor of gun regulation but not a universal gun ban. The team used MyVoice, a text messaging platform, to analyze the responses of people aged 14-24 to questions about gun control.

Study author Kendrin Sonneville, an assistant professor in the School of Public Health, said previous research surveys were done via Scantron and take time to analyze the data, whereas MyVoice can collect data in real time.

“We had these questions asked and were analyzing the results during the news of the Parkland shooting,” Sonneville said. “It occurred to us that we had this data and we wanted to characterize the youth voice on this topic at this time.”

MyVoice asked a cohort of 772 people about topics and policy issues and the origins of their opinions.

“Because we use text messages, we have open ended questions (that show) how (youth) feel and why,” Sonneville said. “The nuance on gun control was in youth responses, so many responded ‘yes, and’ or ‘yes, but.’ Most youth in our sample were not firmly anti-gun but most of them believed that gun control laws would reduce mass shootings.”

Of those who responded, two-thirds were in favor of having guns in the home and two-thirds felt gun control laws would decrease mass shootings.

According to Sonneville, the goal of the research is to represent the opinions of the youth, as they are often the ones affected by policies and health decisions.

“We released this particular study because it aligns with our mission of representing the youth voice, most policies that impact youth don’t take the youth perspective into account and a lot of that is there is not a way to capture their opinion,” Sonneville said. “Our cohort represents every state and the research radar said they can actually represent that views of youth.”

Another University study followed about 2,500 elementary-aged students in 20 large cities and found Black boys are three times more likely than white children to be suspended or expelled by fourth grade.

Garrett Pace, a Ph.D student of Social Work and Sociology and a primary researcher on the project, said this inequality in elementary school punishments could lead to increased aggression.

“We found that around age nine, more than one in ten of all kids born in urban areas of the U.S. have been suspended or expelled,” Pace said. “This was concerning to us because when we looked at those who were suspended or expelled, (they) had more behavior problems. We can’t say that suspension or expulsion caused a child to be more aggressive, but there is a relationship.”

The study argues these high rates would be the effect of limited alternatives for harsh punishment. While there are alternatives to suspension and expulsion, financially-challenged school districts struggle implementing the necessary resources. Pace said behavioral problems in school could be a result of factors ranging from family instability to teacher bias.

“When we broke things down by race we found 30 percent of Black boys had been expelled compared to 8 percent of white boys or those of another race,” Pace said. “What our findings suggest is that Black boys are disproportionately exposed to exclusionary discipline, which increases their risk for aggressive behavior.”

Pace also said students who return from suspensions may exhibit more aggressive behavior, further complicating their learning abilities. He explained the importance of using suspension and expulsion as discipline rarely in schools.

“Disciplinary strategies in school should be inclusive and not exclude kids and deal with the root of what is happening,” Pace said. “(I hope to) raise awareness about exclusionary discipline in school and its very much unfair aspects.”

Autonomous vehicle research

Lastly, this June U-M researchers launched the first driverless shuttle on North Campus. The University’s Mcity analyzes user behavior research and data collection to further autonomous vehicle research. Mcity Director Huei Peng, a professor of Mechanical Engineering, said the project’s data collection will help researchers to better understand vehicle performance, roadway interactions and passenger attitudes.

“The ultimate goal is long-term deployment of driverless shuttles in the real world,” Peng said.

The two Mcity shuttles roaming around North Campus have advanced technology to help the vehicle drive safely and smoothly. The shuttles are equipped with interior and exterior sensors as well as cameras to capture passenger behavior and maintain security. Mcity conducted 500 hours of training and about 1,000 test runs, according to University press release.

“Driverless shuttles have a future only if they are trusted and used by both riders and trusted and accepted by other road users,” Peng said.