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Cryptocurrency study sheds light on fake news

Svitlana Volkova, a data scientist at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is part of a team of researchers who analyzed cryptocurrency discussions on Reddit. (PNNL Photo)

Computer scientists from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have mapped the ebb and flow of Reddit’s discussions about cryptocurrency — not only to see how online chatter can predict market behavior, but also to gain insights into how disinformation goes viral.

“Cryptocurrency is a very good proxy program for disinformation,” said PNNL data scientist Svitlana Volkova, one of the authors of a study presented at the Web Conference 2019 in San Francisco.

The ups and downs of cryptocurrencies have been much in the news over the past couple of years, as have the controversies associated with disinformation campaigns like the ones orchestrated by Russian agents during the 2016 presidential campaign. And cybersecurity experts are seeing evidence that the disinformation battle is already ramping up for 2020.

Tracking disinformation scientifically can be a challenge, however, because the perpetrators tend to blend in with the crowd. On a broad topic like presidential politics, it’s hard to come up with an algorithm that focuses in on what’s true vs. what’s false.

It’s easier to look at how information gets passed along on well-defined Reddit discussion forums devoted to specific cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin, Ethereum and Monero. So Volkova and her co-authors — Emily Saldanha and Maria Glenski — conducted an analysis of tens of thousands of Reddit comments made on the forums for those three crypto coins between 2015 and 2018.

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Beyond bitcoin: Blockchain is on the rise

Lawrence Lerner on bitcoin
Lawrence Lerner, chief growth officer for RChain Holdings, talks about blockchain and bitcoin at an event organized by MIT Enterprise Forum of the Northwest. (GeekWire Photo / Alan Boyle)

Even bitcoin’s boosters acknowledge that cryptocurrencies aren’t a sure thing.

Just in the past month, China and South Korea signaled that they might be cracking down harder on trading in digital currencies, which caused bitcoin prices to tumble from a peak of nearly $20,000 per coin to around $12,000.

“For any of you that own cryptos, this was a rough week,” said John Utley, an IBM sales executive who focuses on blockchain and software-as-a-service verticals.

But the uptick is much steadier for blockchain — the digital technology that underlies cryptocurrencies as well as other recordkeeping applications.

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