The“Truthy” project at Indiana University should have set off alarm bells right at the start. Described as a research project to study how memes spread on social media, it was created in 2010 by university computer science professor Filippo Menczer, and began tracking “suspicious memes,” and “false or misleading ideas” on Twitter. So far it has focused almost exclusively on conservative tweets, websites, and hashtags.
The taxpayer-funded National Science Foundation gave Menczer’s project a research grant of nearly $1 million—even though Menczer’s own grant materials used such loaded phrases as “hate speech” and disclosed a plan to allow members of “the public” to monitor and report on other people’s tweets in a Red Guard-style hunt for “subversive propaganda.”
When negative publicity hit the project, the university allowed Menczer to delete or make private sensitive Indiana University-supported web pages connected to Truthy, on one of which Menczer is reported to have announced his support for such left-leaning and overtly partisan organizations as Moveon.org and Organizing for Action, the successor to President Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign.
The Truthy website also recently deleted from its “Projects Gallery” page a hashtag for “Top Conservatives on Twitter” (#tcot) that it had reportedly described as the “most popular meme we track.” The deleted page—reportedly up online through Oct. 14–included tweet statistics for the Drudge Report, Ann Coulter, and other high-profile conservative accounts. Visitors to the Truthy page were reportedly asked to “tell us what you think about” any Twitter account using the #tcot hashtag.” So far Twitter has suspended at least three Truthy-targeted accounts supporting conservative causes and GOP House Speaker John Boehner.
It’s not surprising, then, that the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on Nov. 10 sent a letter to France Córdova, head of the National Science Foundation, demanding 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 to a website that targeted conservative political comments.”
How the Colleges Got Involved
In April of 2010 two researchers at Wellesley College, Eni Mustafaraj and Panagiotis Metaxis, helped inspire “Truthy.” They published a paper arguing that the American Future Fund, a libertarian lobbying organization opposed to Obamacare, that appeared to have ties with those liberal bugaboos, the Koch brothers, had conducted a “Twitter-bomb” campaign against Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, a Democrat, that caused her to lose her January 2010 bid to fill the late Edward Kennedy’s Senate seat to Republican Scott Brown. The paper ignored the fact that Coakley might have simply been an unappealing candidate (this November she lost another race to a Republican, for governor of Massachusetts, an overwhelmingly Democratic state). Instead Mustafaraj and Metaxis threw around such phrases as “fabricated content,” “unverified events,” and “lies and misrepresentations” to describe the hundreds of tweets that the American Future Fund had sent around via anonymous Twitter accounts.
The gist of the tweets—that Coakley had raised campaign money via a Washington fundraiser hosted by lobbyists for healthcare entities that favored Obamacare—was actually true. But according to Jared Keller of The Atlantic, Menczer latched onto the Coakley incident as an example of what he called “information pollution,” as he called it in an interview with Keller. (Menczer reportedly changed the phrase to “social pollution” on the Truthy website, although that phrase has been since deleted.) A September 2010 press release from Indiana University about Menczer’s project warned, “Astroturfers, Twitter-bombers and smear campaigners need beware this election season.”
In a 2012 paper (actually a chapter for a book, “The Death of the Internet”) co-written with Indiana University graduate students that described the Truthy project, Menczer referred to Coakley as a “smeared candidate.” He said that he had founded Truthy “in the run up to the November 2010 midterm elections with the explicit purpose of detecting and tracking political astroturfing attempts in real time.” As examples, he cited several conservative accounts that had been suspended by Twitter as a result of his work, as well as a dummy “campaign smearing” Democrat Chris Coons in his race for a Senate seat from Delaware in 2010. The paper mentioned no activity of any kind benefitting either Republican candidates or conservatives in general, much less attacking any Democratic astroturfing source. Menczer wrote of a “highly-active, densely-interconnected constituency of right-leaning users using [Twitter] to further their political views.”
Even Truthy’s recently “cleaned-up” Projects Gallery page (minus the #tcot and other hashtags) features mostly right-leaning web locations, including the supposed Coons-“smearing” Twitter page, a site called Barracuda Brigade (after Sarah Palin) whose main offense against Truthy seems to be its videos of Taliban beheadings (described by Truthy as “anti-Islamic propaganda”), and a page from Fox Nation, Fox News’s internet forum.
An Unsatisfactory Response
The House letter—along with Menczer’s hasty deletion and rewriting of parts of the Truthy site—seems to have been triggered by a widely circulating series of news stories, beginning on Aug. 25, by Elizabeth Harrington, a reporter for the conservative Washington Free Beacon. Harrington pointed out that Indiana University has so far received $919,917 for Menczer’s project. On Oct. 17 Ajit Pai, a member of the Federal Communications Commission, wrote an op-ed for the Washington Post questioning the use of government money (from the National Science Foundation) to fund Menczer’s project. “If you take to Twitter to express your views on a hot-button issue, does the government have an interest in deciding whether you are spreading ‘misinformation’?,’’ Pai wrote.
“Hmm. A government-funded initiative is going to “assist in the preservation of open debate” by monitoring social media for “subversive propaganda” and combating what it considers to be “the diffusion of false and misleading ideas”? The concept seems to have come straight out of a George Orwell novel.”
Tellingly, the main reaction of Menzcer’s colleagues in academia has been to characterize Harrington’s stories and the attention they have received as just another “misleading” right-wing meme. On Oct. 22 Henry Farrell, a political science professor at George Washington University, published the transcript of his own softball interview with Menczer. It included such questions as “Pai’s op-ed is only the latest in a series of inflammatory stories spreading misleading claims about Truthy. How did these attacks begin?” The Columbia Journalism Review, berating Fox News for picking up Harrington’s reports, called them a case study of how “shoddy information can quickly become an online narrative. Science Insider accused the conservative media of “spreading falsehoods” about Menczer and his work.
As for Menzcer, who is currently on sabbatical at Yahoo! Labs, he told Science Insider that he now talks only to “bona fide reporters who want to know about my work.” Perhaps Minding the Campus is not among the bona fide, because neither he nor his assistant responded to my e-mailed requests for interviews. Nor did Indiana University’s public affairs department respond to my e-mail. The response of Dana Topousis, public affairs officer for the National Science Foundation, was to refer me to the three sympathy-oozing articles about Menczer in the Washington Post, the Columbia Journalism Review, and Science Insider.
But Menczer’s obsession with “social pollution” from the “right wing” speaks for itself—and continues to raise the question of why a federal agency and a public university continue to pay for this sort of thing.