It must be difficult to live in a world where dark conspiracies are always seeking to destroy America and crush freedom. And lord knows, Our Government has certainly done some seriously nasty stuff! The thing is — and we’re only telling you this because we think you can handle it — not everything the government does is aimed at stifling dissent! No, really!
For instance, there’s this long-running research program at Indiana University called “Truthy,” named in a hat-tip to Stephen Colbert, which is focused on how information spreads on the Internet. Among other projects, Truthy has looked at how rumors spread, how trends develop on Twitter, and how it might be possible to identify whether Twitter content is being generated by a bot rather than by actual people. It’s valuable, interesting research that is aimed solely at making sense of how people actually use this here series of tubes.
Ah, but what it it’s not? What if, as a Washington Free Beacon article claimed in August, Truthy is really an Orwellian attempt to crack down on political speech The Powers That Be don’t like? It’s making mean, unfair value judgments, like saying that maybe the idea that Barack Obama is a Muslim who’s in league with ISIS is “not true” — what a slur on patriots! After all, says that article, the research project “was successful in getting accounts associated with conservatives suspended” from Twitter. Horrors! Except that the Twitter accounts weren’t suspended by the big bad government, but by Twitter, and they were suspended not because they were conservative, but because they were spambots, a tiny detail left out of the Free Beacon piece, and also ignored by a Fox & Friends story back in August.
After that kerfuffle led a Republican member of the FCC to fret that Truthy was an Orwellian project aimed at tracking conservatives who think incorrectly, two of Truthy’s lead researchers, Filippo Menczer and Alessandro Flammini, took to the Washington Post to debunk the claims, and George Orwell’s ghost politely requested to be left out of this, please.
And now, Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas, chair of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee — that august body devoted to serving the whims of climate deniers (such as Smith himself) and people who think evolution and the Big Bang are lies from the pit of hell — wants some answers about this dangerous threat to our liberty and why it’s aimed at suppressing the free speech of conservatives. Which, as we say, it isn’t. He sent a very stern letter Monday to National Science Foundation Director France Cordova, demanding that Cordova explain why the NSF is funding this Orwellian crackdown on Free Speech. Following the narrative ginned up in the Free Beacon and on Fox, Smith is very, very concerned that “several social media accounts that were highlighted by Truthy were subsequently terminated by the owners of the social media platforms, effectively muzzling the political free speech of the targeted individuals and groups.”
Again, no mention of the reason those accounts were first identified by Truthy and then killed by Twitter. As part of a larger project on astroturfing, Truthy developed algorithms to detect spambots, they worked, and Twitter nuked the accounts for violation of their terms of service. It’s nice to know that Rep. Smith is so concerned about the precious free speech rights of spambots.
Smith’s letter demands an exhaustive list of documents from the NSF so his committee can find out just why the government is funding this terrible threat to free speech that’s nothing of the sort. In the meantime, the Free Beacon has another story accusing the NSF of being Out To Get Conservatives — with the incredible claim that Truthy has the ability, all by itself, to delete and suspend Twitter accounts. Rage-fueled paranoid harpy Michelle Malkin has also jumped on the bandwagon, and is trying to get a #defundtruthy hashtag going. After all, what good could possibly come of a project whose very name is a nod to a liberal comedian?
As the Wingnuttosphere gears up to crush a pretty interesting study of online communication, at least Truthy’s researchers will enjoy a unique vantage point: they’ve developed a terrific set of data analysis tools with which they can study their own project’s destruction by waves of misinformation. And with the new majority in Congress, we can look forward to even more exciting attacks on science. Perhaps in the interests of equal time, they’ll set up a National Institute for Prayer.