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How a Study of Misinformation Campaigns Became the Target of One

“Truthy” is a study of how misinformation spreads online, so it was no surprise when a right-wing stupidity echo chamber got ahold of it.

The oafish House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology took a break this week from complaining about the existence of EPA regulations and denying climatechange to demonstrate how little they understood something else. Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) decried a National Science Foundation-funded study called "Truthy" as an Orwellian censorship net designed to disrupt First Amendment rights across the internet.

"The government has no business using taxpayer dollars to support limiting free speech on Twitter and other social media," Smith said via press release. "While the Science Committee has recently looked into a number of other questionable NSF grants, this one appears to be worse than a simple misuse of public funds. The NSF is out of touch and out of control."

Needless to say, calling Indiana University's "Truthy project" a nascent Big Brother is like calling a traffic study the first step towards the government driving all our cars into the ocean. Truthy does look over publicly available tweets, but not in order to limit free speech, but rather as part of an effort towards "understanding how information propagates through complex socio-technical information networks."

In a way, it was their own subject of study that backfired on them, almost like they should've seen it coming. According to Truthy's website, the program "makes use of complex computer models to analyze the sharing of information on social media to determine how popular sentiment, user influence, attention, social network structure, and other factors affect the manner in which information is disseminated. Additionally, an important goal of the Truthy project is to better understand how social media can be abused."

The results are papers like this one, titled "Evolution of online user behavior during a social upheaval," which won the ACM Web Science 2014 Best Paper Award for studying "the pivotal role played by Twitter during the political mobilization of the Gezi Park movement in Turkey."

The project has also produced fun and publicly available tools like "Bot or Not?" which I used to reveal that Barack Obama is probably a robot, back in July. Using public money, what Truthy creates is publicly available, and it's interesting stuff.

But now the creators' time is being spent trying to get people to stop calling their project protofascist. The researchers have had a "Truth About Truthy" site up since late August, when a misleading story about Truthy appeared in the Washington Free Beacon that described the research project by saying "the federal government is spending nearly $1 million to create an online database that will track 'misinformation' and hate speech on Twitter." 

The truth about Truthy site has to be constantly updated to keep up with misinformation that keeps going around, first at Fox News (Megyn Kelly said the program would lead to "some bureaucrat deciding if you were being hateful or misinforming people," something that, if true, Fox News should worry about), then in a Washington Post op-ed, and finally tumbling out of the mouth of the chair of a prominent House subcommittee.

"The Truthy project is not designed and has not been used to create a database of political misinformation to be used by the federal government to monitor the activities of those who oppose its policies," the site states. "Truthy is not intended and is not capable to determine whether a statement constitutes 'misinformation.' The target is the study of the structural patterns of information diffusion."

The site does note the irony that "a research project that studies the diffusion of misinformation becoming the target of such a powerful disinformation machine."

"It's weird to do an analysis on something that's happening to us," Fil Menczer, who works on the project, told the Columbia Journalism Review. "Unfortunately, this is exactly the type of misinformation machinery that we study."

Menszer said that the conclusions in the Free Beacon story weren't really as provocative as the headline, and as the story leaked out, it morphed into something unrecognizable. "[Right-wing publications] couldn't care less about us," he said. "They're using this to say something about Obama and the federal government."

Being good researchers, I'm sure they're not missing the lessons that can be gleaned from their own misinformation cycle: it takes approximately two months for a bullshit published on a right-wing website to ride a combination of fiscal conservatism and batshit conspiracy theorizing all the way to being spouted by a member of the House of Representatives committee on Science, Space, and Technology, a committee that is against science, research, technology yet has the temerity to call the NSF "out of touch."