By J.D. Heyes
Members of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee have sent a letter to the director of the National Science Foundation (NSF) demanding to know more about the beginnings of a $1 million taxpayer-funded project to track conservative “misinformation” on the Twitter social media site.
Known as “Truthy,” the project is being headed up by researchers at the University of Indiana, and it is currently under probe for alleged one-sided targeting of political commentary on Twitter. As reported by The Washington Free Beacon (WFB):
The project monitors “suspicious memes,” “false and misleading ideas,” and “hate speech,” with a goal of one day being able to automatically detect false rumors on the social media platform.
But what has raised suspicions, especially among conservatives, is the site’s inordinate tracking of conservative-related tweets and hashtags like #tcot (Top Conservatives on Twitter); the combination of such tracking combined with the site’s stated goals of examining hate speech and “false and misleading ideas” set off alarm bells.
The WFB added that the site was “successful in getting accounts associated with conservatives suspended,” at least according to a 2012 book co-written by the project’s lead researcher, Filippo Menczer, a professor of Infomatics and Computer Science at the university.
So, only conservatives use “hate speech” and “subversive propaganda”
The project head also said Truthy was used to monitor tweets that used #p2 (Progressive 2.0), but there was no discussion of liberal accounts getting suspended in his tome.
“The Committee and taxpayers deserve to know how NSF decided to award a large grant for a project that proposed to develop standards for online political speech and to apply those standards through development of a website that targeted conservative political comments,” committee chairman Lamar Smith, R-Texas, wrote in a letter to NSF Director France Cordova.
“While some have argued that Truthy could be used to better understand things like disaster communication or to assist law enforcement, instead it appears Truthy focused on examples of ‘false and misleading ideas, hate speech, and subversive propaganda’ communicated by conservative groups,” he wrote.
Smith wants to see the original application for the Indiana study, as well as “every internal and external e-mail, letter, memorandum, record, note, text message or other document” that was either sent or received by the NSF regarding Truthy since the study was launched in 2011.
In addition to requesting all correspondence and documentation, Smith’s letter goes on to reference a publication that was co-authored by Menczer, explaining how the project was used to keep track of tweets ahead of the 2010 midterm elections (in which the GOP retook control of the House and gained Senate seats).
Menczer, in a paper titled “Abuse of Social Media and Political Manipulation” — a chapter for the book The Death of the Internet – wrote how he and his research team had managed to have some Twitter accounts shut down.
“With the exploding popularity of online social networks and microblogging platforms, social media have become the turf on which battles of opinion are fought,” begins the chapter. “This section discusses a particularly insidious type of abuse of social media, aimed at manipulation of political discourse online.”
“Database? What database?”
WFB reported that the Truthy project tracked some 8 million tweets daily in the days and weeks ahead of the 2010 elections, storing 600,000 political tweets in a searchable database, though Menczer had claimed previously that Truthy did not “have a database.” That page of the Truthy website was subsequently deleted after an editorial by FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai which warned that the project could wind up being misused.
“The streams provided our system with up to 8 million tweets per day during the course of the study,” the paper said. “These were scanned in real time by our system. In total, our analysis considered over 305 million tweets collected from September 14 until October 27, 2010.”
“Of these, 1.2 million contained one or more of our political keywords; detection of interesting memes further reduced this set to 600,000 tweets actually entered in our database for analysis,” the paper noted.
Menczer claimed the site did not have a database in response to an initial WFB report questioning the motives of the Truthy project.
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