Earnest academics in Indiana have set up an internet project designed to thwart evil right-wing internet smear campaigns against Democratic politicians, astroturfing, "and other social pollution". The website, truthy.indiana.edu, uses the Twitter API to identify internet memes and measure their "truthiness" - ie how bullshitty they are, in modern parlance.
"One of the concerns about social media is that people are being manipulated without realizing it because a meme can be given instant global popularity by a high search engine ranking, in turn perpetuating the falsehood," says Filippo Menczer, professor of computer science and informatics.
"Swiftboaters* beware!" exclaims the site. In a statement released yesterday announcing the service, the designers explain the threat it is intended to guard against:
Menczer got the idea for the Truthy website after hearing researchers from Wellesley College speak earlier this year on their research analyzing a well-known Twitter bomb campaign conducted by the conservative group American Future Fund (AFF) against Martha Coakley, a democrat who lost the Massachusetts senatorial seat formerly held by the late Edward Kennedy. Republican challenger Scott Brown won the seat after AFF set up nine Twitter accounts in early morning hours prior to the election and then sent out 929 tweets in two hours before Twitter realized the information was spam. By then the messages had reached 60,000 people.
Twitter bombings of this sort can push a truthy meme - for these purposes a #hashtag, a @mention/reply, or a URL - up the Google rankings and generally get it looked at. Assisting the truth (the truthful truth, not the truthy truth) to gets its boots on faster is the new project's goal, which it will apparently accomplish simply by flagging up dubious trending memes.
"When we identify a trend we go back and examine how it was started, where the main injection points were, and any associated memes," says Menczer. "When we drill down we'll be able to see statistics and visualizations relating to tweets that mention the meme and basically reconstruct its history."
Here's a vid, for example, showing the development of the Twitter burst generated by Lady Gaga supporters toward John McCain following Gaga's comments about McCain's opposition to repealing the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" ban on uncloseted gay people serving in the US military:
However, Menczer and his colleagues' code can only identify memes which seem to be about politics - it can't tell whether they're truthy or not. Thus, it seems that the new social-networking-driven political effects are to be kept honest by - you guessed it - crowdsourcing. The system decides how truthy something is by tallying up the number of visitors who click the "Truthy" button when it presents a suspicious meme.
The truthy designers consider that the site will be a valuable resource in the run up to the November congressional elections, helping concerned US netizens evade any scoundrelly Tweetbomb-driven autofalsehoods and cast their votes responsibly.
Alternatively, it will simply implode in a crippling digital feedback loop as the same dastardly astroturfers it seeks to unmask use truthy.indiana.edu to discredit itself, or to discredit criticism of their campaigns. It would certainly seem a difficult task to make the output of anonymous internet commentards more useful by getting anonymous internet commentards to assess it. ®
*For UK readers, those who may have been on Mars at the time, etc: This refers to a famous smear campaign mounted by US republicans to the effect that democrat senator and 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry's naval service in river gunboats ("swift boats") during the Vietnam War was in some way discreditable.
Undisputed facts of Kerry's service were that he was involved in several serious battles with enemy forces and was wounded more than once. He was awarded two medals for gallantry, for actions quite sufficient to merit the awards.
Kerry definitely saw more action and ran more personal risks than the average among US Vietnam veterans - many of whom saw no combat at all. Compared to his 2004 election opponent George W Bush - who avoided going to Vietnam altogether by getting into the Texas National Guard - Kerry appears in a still better light.
Bizarrely, however, much of the US public became convinced during the 2004 election that the timid, draft-dodging Bush would be a better Commander-in-Chief of the US military than Kerry, the decorated combat veteran.