Battling the Infodemic
On January 6, 2021, the day of the Capitol insurrection, AuCoDe, a UMass Amherst start-up company, realized the importance of figuring out how such a horrific event could occur.
Delving into Parler, the social media platform favored by many who besieged the Capitol, AuCoDe quickly analyzed 672,000 comments posted by 291,000 users between January 6 and January 12. AuCoDe’s initial analysis uncovered the top 10 most controversial Parler posts and identified bots on the site. AuCoDe also found that after the January 6 incident, Parler users continued to call for some form of organized action, although they were split on the need for violence.
AuCoDe (pronounced Oh-code) continues to investigate its huge dataset of social media posts, looking for insight into the spread of violent rhetoric, racist comments, and misinformation. As this work demonstrates, AuCoDe’s mission couldn’t be timelier. Using its proprietary algorithm, AuCoDe—for automated controversy detection—harnesses big data to automatically detect online controversies and identify disinformation.
“Our work has never been more important, and we hope to play a critical role in developing solutions for a safer, more transparent internet” says Julian Lustig-Gonzalez ’10, ’17MBA, the company’s vice president of finance. “We have ambitious goals based on the potential of our unique technology.”
The National Science Foundation has recognized AuCoDe’s promise, awarding the company a coveted two-year, $750,000 Phase II grant from its Small Business Innovation Research program in November. AuCoDe is using the grant for further research on curbing disinformation online and exploring market opportunities.
AuCoDe was born and nurtured at UMass Amherst. Computer scientist Shiri Dori-Hacohen ’15G, ’17PhD, chief executive officer, founded the company as a spinoff of UMass Amherst NSF-funded research on online controversies. Dori-Hacohen worked with co-founder and computer science professor James Allan, a world-renowned expert in information retrieval.
The company came to early prominence when Dori-Hacohen won first prize and $35,000 in seed money at the 2016 Innovation Challenge, a cross-campus entrepreneurship competition coordinated by the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship
Lustig-Gonzalez met Dori-Hacohen at the Innovation Challenge and joined the team in 2019. Lustig-Gonzalez, who has launched a solar energy business in Columbia, worked for Springfield’s River Valley Investors, and served as an advisor to fledgling companies, says, “I have met with hundreds of entrepreneurs and I was immediately struck by Shiri’s intellect, inquisitiveness, and moxie.”
AuCoDe’s vice president of research, Keen Sung ’14G, ’20PhD, was also educated at the UMass Amherst College of Information and Computer Sciences. Furthermore, the company has benefited from continuing guidance from the Berthiaume Center and others in the campus entrepreneurship ecosystem.
AuCoDe will soon launch a Chrome extension called Detoxify that will allow users to blur out misinformation and toxic posts on selected topics, such as politics or COVID-19. This can assist in making social media environments less noisy and preventing doomscrolling.
Says Dori-Hacohen, “Our patent-pending machine learning approach and strongly qualified team is uniquely positioned to improve the health and veracity of the entire online ecosystem.”