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Get ready for your taxpayer-funded Twitter 'truth database'

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Fortunately all of America’s problems appear to be solved, and the government is swimming in cash, because a million federal dollars have been poured into what the Washington Free Beacon describes as “an online database that will track ‘misinformation’ and hate speech on Twitter.”

The National Science Foundation is financing the creation of a web service that will monitor “suspicious memes” and what it considers “false and misleading ideas,” with a major focus on political activity online.

The “Truthy” database, created by researchers at Indiana University, is designed to “detect political smears, astroturfing, misinformation, and other social pollution.”

The university has received $919,917 so far for the project.

“The project stands to benefit both the research community and the public significantly,” the grant states. “Our data will be made available via [application programming interfaces] APIs and include information on meme propagation networks, statistical data, and relevant user and content features.”

“The open-source platform we develop will be made publicly available and will be extensible to ever more research areas as a greater preponderance of human activities are replicated online,” it continues. “Additionally, we will create a web service open to the public for monitoring trends, bursts, and suspicious memes.”

“This service could mitigate the diffusion of false and misleading ideas, detect hate speech and subversive propaganda, and assist in the preservation of open debate,” the grant said.

Worried that this system might be corrupted into a partisan political tool?  Why, that’s as silly as worrying that someone might turn a unit of the Internal Revenue Service into a partisan voter-suppression hit machine!  You’ll be relieved to know that the project’s lead investigator is a scrupulously fair-minded and non-partisan fellow who supports “President Barack Obama’s Organizing for Action, MoveOn.org, Greenpeace, the Sierra Club, Amnesty International, and True Majority.”

The government-funded researchers hope that the public will use their tool in the future to report on other Twitter users.

“Truthy uses a sophisticated combination of text and data mining, social network analysis, and complex networks models,” the website adds. “To train our algorithms, we leverage crowdsourcing: we rely on users like you to flag injections of forged grass-roots activity. Therefore, click on the Truthy button when you see a suspicious meme!”

What could go wrong?  Hey, remember the “spam-flagging” epidemic, when mobs of left-wingers used Twitter’s “flag for spam” feature to mount organized attacks against their political opponents and force them off the social media platform?  I’m sure we’re past all that, and nobody would ever dream of organizing online flash mobs to distort “Truthy” algorithms, assuming the people who design them don’t pre-distort them with a dash of ideological spice.  Anyone who watched “fact-check” sites twist themselves into pretzels to rate Obama’s 2012 campaign B.S. “half-true” knows that efforts to objectively define truth often go awry.

There’s a lot of interest in studying online behavior and the formation of viral memes.  I’m intrigued by astroturfing and efforts to manufacture false consensus with Internet tools myself, having written about such tactics as the organized use of phony online reviews to manipulate product ratings.  But why should anyone support pouring a million dollars of federal money into this?


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