It’s been a couple of days since the Washington Free Beacon’s Elizabeth Harrington first reported on the three-year-old federal grant from the National Science Foundation for the “Truthy” database, and … not much else has happened. Blogs have picked it up, including our own Mary Katharine, and Reason’s Bobby Soave did a good job of highlighting its inherent contradictions. Twitchy has collated a number of tongue-in-cheek attempts to kick-start Truthy. Other than that, the national media appears to have gone radio silent on this latest project; according to a Bing news search this morning, no national outlet has yet picked up the story from WFB.
That’s interesting, because one might have guessed that they would take notice of a million-dollar effort to encroach on their fact-checking turf. In my column for The Week today, I wonder why the federal government is spending a million dollars to create a mechanism that sounds like it could come straight out of Orwell when we have a perfectly good private-sector market for free speech:
The better question is this: Who makes these subjective judgments? At least at first, the answer would be the researchers who are building Truthy under a federal grant from the NSF. It’s not to hard to imagine a scenario in which the federal government would eventually find a use for Truthy, and would make the subjective judgments on how best to monitor political speech on social media.
Reason’s Bobby Soave points out the basic contradiction in claiming, as the abstract does, to support “the preservation of open debate” while attempting to apply labels to speech such as “suspicious memes,” “hate speech,” and “subversive propaganda,” as well as determining which arguments constitute an “organic meme” versus an “inorganic” one. “Those seem like conflicting goals,” Soave writes, “even if pursued in a totally apolitical way.”
Or an “inorganic” way, for that matter. Truthy is the very definition of a top-down determination of the legitimacy of public speech. In a free society, citizens make those determinations for themselves. That is the organic approach to political speech, stemming from those who wish to engage in — or become spectators to — the contest of ideas, arguments, analyses, and proposals. Instead of allowing people to reach their own conclusions about those ideas and arguments, Truthy and the NSF instead appear to want to delegitimize the people who engage in those debates, which would in any other circumstance become the very kind of political smear that Truthy is supposedly designed to protect against.
The fact-checking industry, for all its faults, at least uses a free-market approach to criticism and debate that “Truthy” would pervert. Citizens of a free nation who value political speech shouldn’t pay a dime for Truthy, let alone a million dollars. Its abstract describes an apparatus for state control of political thought, as though its proposers read George Orwell’s 1984 as a how-to rather than a cautionary tale.
The Inquisitr takes a look at the principals involved in this project, and wonders just how non-partisan this project really is:
The project website also says that while many memes are created in a “perfectly organic manner,” others are allegedly driven by the “shady machinery of high-profile congressional campaigns.” Free speech advocates say, “so what” to the organic vs. organized meme creation. If a political advocacy group makes a Barack Obama golf meme, will they wind up in the government-funded database? According to the description and focus of the Truthy database project, the answer would be a resounding “yes.”
But speaking of “the shady machinery of high-profile … campaigns,” we have this:
The Truthy database project is billed as a non-partisan effort, but the “lead investigator” on the project is reportedly involved with a multitude of progressive or liberal groups, Filippo Menczer has reportedly uttered support for Moveon.org, Amnesty International, and President Barack Obama’s Organizing for Action, among other groups. Filippo Menczer is also a computer science and informatics professor at Indiana University. Links to the political and activists groups the Truthy database leader supports are posted on his bio page at the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research. Menczer’s page also says that he is on sabbatical at Yahoo! Labs for the 2014-15 academic year. The $1 million grant funded by the taxpayers runs during the same year.
But don’t worry … you’ll love Big Brother! They promise not to make that a “suspicious meme,” too.