UL scientists work to identify social media ‘superspreaders’

University of Limerick research among 26 projects sharing €43 million investment

Researchers at the University of Limerick (UL) are developing new mathematical techniques and models to examine how information spreads rapidly online.

A team headed by Prof James Gleeson is to benefit from €900,000 in funding from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) to investigate “social spreading phenomena”.

It is part of an investment of €43 million in 26 research projects through the SFI Investigators Programme.

The UL scientists will develop an algorithm to identify users of social networks who are “superspreaders” - ie those whose retweets can make information travel faster to everybody else.


“A better understanding of how information spreads through social influence will help find ways to circulate important information more quickly such as health and terrorism alerts,” Prof Gleeson explained following the announcement of the 2017 programme.

It will also have practical application in countering misinformation and rumours, he added.

The projects announced by Minister for Training, Skills, Innovation, Research and Development John Halligan will support 94 research positions over the next five years. He paid tribute to the range and quality of research being undertaken.

Prof Andrew Bowie of Trinity College outlined how an ancient protein known as SARM – found in worms, flies and mammals – is effective in countering inflammatory diseases (such as irritable bowel disease and rheumatoid arthritis) by switching on the human “immunity train” and determining what direction it goes in. His team is to receive €1.95 million.

To strengthen and accelerate research in “strategic areas of national interest”, SFI is collaborating with several funding agencies and public bodies. Six of the research projects received co-funding worth €3 million from Teagasc, the Geological Survey Ireland (GSI), the Marine Institute and the EPA.

Two projects co-funded by SFI, GSI and the Marine Institute are looking at new technologies to study the deep seabed off the coast of Ireland.

The projects build on existing seabed mapping research known as INFOMAR. Prof Andy Wheeler of UCC will use the latest robotic technology to study Ireland’s cold-water corals and examine how they may be affected by climate change. His work is concentrated in the deep Atlantic 300km off the west coast at a depth of more than a kilometre.

Prof Sergei Lebedev (Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies) will deploy sensors placed at depths of up to several kilometres, to look deep into our offshore geology and monitor ocean processes including potential tsunamis generating landslides.

SFI director general Prof Mark Ferguson said the investigators programme “funds outstanding individuals performing excellent, impactful research”.

“I have the highest expectations for the projects funded today, and look forward to seeing the benefits to Ireland’s society and economy,” he said.

Along with the funded projects, an international peer-review panel recommended a further 33 “scientifically excellent projects for funding”, he said. These were on a reserve list to be supported if budgets permit later in the year.

Mr Halligan said: “I’m confident the teams being supported will generate important new scientific breakthroughs. In addition, today’s investment provides 20 companies with access to invaluable expertise and infrastructure.”

The programme “is the bedrock of emerging Irish science”, he added. “Advances in science and technology will be of paramount importance over the next 20 years. They will determine which economies prosper .”

The Minister said he was endeavouring to change the school curriculum to incorporate a focus on research and development, and innovation, which was proving to be difficult. Some progress had been made in the teaching of coding, he added.

Research bodies also benefiting from the funding are DCU, NUI Galway, Maynooth University, University College Dublin, Teagasc and Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times