When it comes to quantifiably productive debate about politics, Twitter is the abyss. Those who choose to wade into its murky depths accept the fact that they’re jumping into the deep end with the hackers, the trolls, and the most enthusiastic dregs of internet society.

The government recognizes this, and they’re here to help.

A new project out of Indiana University, dubbed “Truthy,” is fully funded by the federal government and seeks to harvest and analyze your Twitter data. The project’s developers claim that they’ve developed a system that “evaluates thousands of tweets an hour to identify new and emerging bursts of activity around memes of various flavors.”

Here comes the science, courtesy of Indiana University’s Truthy homepage:

We also plan to use Truthy to detect political smears, astroturfing, misinformation, and other social pollution. While the vast majority of memes arise in a perfectly organic manner, driven by the complex mechanisms of life on the Web, some are engineered by the shady machinery of high-profile congressional campaigns. Truthy uses a sophisticated combination of text and data mining, social network analysis, and complex networks models. 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!

Here’s a flow chart, which contains even more science:

Truthy Architecture

As an academic and data nerd, I can recognize the intellectual curiosity associated with this kind of research. On some level, I like it. If it were an independent project that I didn’t have to fund, I’d support it, because I think it would be interesting to see to what level each side of aisle would be willing to use a watchdog project of the federal government to complain about astroturfing.

As someone who will most definitely be targeted and reported for her tweets, however, I hate this. I hate that the federal government is funding a project that will allow citizens to tattle on each other for using a private discussion platform to influence conversations about politics.

From FCC member Ajit Pai, in an op-ed at the Washington Post:

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.

The NSF has already poured nearly $1 million into Truthy. To what end? Why is the federal government spending so much money on the study of your Twitter habits?

Some possible hints as to Truthy’s real motives emerge in a 2012 paper by the project’s leaders, in which they wrote ominously of a “highly-active, densely-interconnected constituency of right-leaning users using [Twitter] to further their political views.”

God forbid the competition get out of hand, right?

The problem with Truthy is that, as Pai goes on to say, the government has no business entering the marketplace of ideas and deciding who bears truth and who bears false witness against Barack Obama the other side of the aisle. If this were a private project or political campaign using this type of analysis as a way to figure out how to increase engagement, I’d be all for it, because private entities have a stake in attempting to control the message.

The government may have a stake as well, but they have no right to do it by using researchers at a public university to monitor and intimidate private citizens.

Twitter obviously isn’t impressed:

I wonder if any of those tweets have been reported yet?

H/T to Instapundit.
Featured image here.

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