The federal government is sponsoring a creepy social media research project: The aim is to produce a database of politically disfavored tweets, misinformation, and "other social pollution." The grant for the project—made by the National Science Foundation to Indiana University—was discovered by The Washington Free Beacon's Elizabeth Harrington, who writes:
The National Science Foundation is financing the creation of a web service that will monitor "suspicious memes" and what it considers "false and misleading ideas," with a major focus on political activity online.
The "Truthy" database, created by researchers at Indiana University, is designed to "detect political smears, astroturfing, misinformation, and other social pollution."
The university has received $919,917 so far for the project.
The fact that the project is called Truthy—the word Stephen Colbert used back in 2005 to lambaste Republicans' distortions of facts—is the first hint about its political leanings. The next comes courtesy of the project's explanation on its own website:
We also plan to use Truthy to detect political smears, astroturfing, misinformation, and other social pollution. While the vast majority of memes arise in a perfectly organic manner, driven by the complex mechanisms of life on the Web, some are engineered by the shady machinery of high-profile congressional campaigns. Truthy uses a sophisticated combination of text and data mining, social network analysis, and complex networks models. To train our algorithms, we leverage crowdsourcing: we rely on users like you to flag injections of forged grass-roots activity. Therefore, click on the Truthy button when you see a suspicious meme!
The above passage reeks of a people-who-disagree-with-me-are-liars perspective. What counts as a political smear, and why do smears automatically count as social pollution? What's the difference between an organic and inorganic meme? Is "forged grass-roots activity" just a synonym for "Koch stuff"?
The grant's abstract claims that Truthy will "assist in the preservation of open debate" by detecting "hate speech and subversive propaganda." Those seem like conflicting goals, even if pursued in a totally apolitical way.
Do Americans really want the government to sponsor a website that collects their Tweets and determines whether they are socially harmful? Like it or not, taxpayers have already contributed nearly $1 million to such a project.
If you Tweet this story, please watch your manners, get all you facts straight, and don't create any inorganic memes. Thanks.