Federal Government May Use Project Truthy To Search For, Monitor Political Speech On Twitter


The government is helping with another cyber-monitoring project. The National Science Foundation is working with Indiana University on Truthy, a project in which they intend to study people’s political speech and behavior on Twitter. Specifically, they’re looking for behavior they consider to be “social pollution” and “social epidemics.”

An op-ed in the Washington Post, however, says there’s a lot more to the story. Ajit Pai, a member of the FCC, says that Truthy will track political hashtags, such as #dems and #teaparty. It will ask for feedback on whether certain Twitter users are “truthy” or “spammy,” under the guise of seeing whether people are spreading misinformation and subversive propaganda.

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Other hashtags Truthy is tracking are #ows, #tcot, #gop, and #topprog. The site itself makes it look like a good research project overall. Infographics show how information spreads on Twitter (retweets vs. mentions, for instance), and they have a list of the most popular red and blue hashtags. They analyze users’ behavior to determine which accounts might be bots, and which are real. You can see how many tweets contain certain hashtags over a given period of time.

They also have questions to which they’re looking for answers, such as, “How does sentiment change over time in response to political events?” and, “Who are the most influential users?” Those answers could provide useful information in a lot of ways, including what our political landscape really looks like, instead of what the polls say it looks like. Twitter, and social media in general, is a platform that people who feel they have no voice can use to find their voice.

On the surface, Truthy is a great project for a university to undertake. It could help us understand how misinformation influences public opinion, and perhaps make our lying politicians understand just how their lies affect us (har de har har).

Pai is a Republican, according to The Hill. His concern seems to be that Truthy is targeting the right far more than the left, and he implies that the underlying purpose of Truthy is to silence the right, but he brings up a valid question: Who gets to determine the difference between “subversive propaganda” and simple discontented speech? We have a right to express discontent, however much the government may not like it. While some speech on Twitter would obviously fall under “subversive,” other speech would be up for subjective interpretation.

Then there’s the question of what the government plans to do with the information Truthy gathers. We, the people, could be interested in it for a huge variety of reasons, including giving greater credit to, or discrediting, certain people and publications based on their “truthiness.” What would the government do with it? Who would they want shut down? And would they have a case?

The fact is that one of the things the project is looking for is subversive speech and propaganda, and using federal funds to do so. As if the NSA’s spying wasn’t bad enough, now the government wants to poke and prod at what we say on Twitter.

Featured image by Andy Melton, via Wikimedia Commons, under this Creative Commons license

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