The Government Wants To Censor Social Media By Studying ‘Social Pollution’ On Twitter

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
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Months after the Federal Communications Commission was forced to withdraw a newsroom study many viewed as an attempt to censor the media, the government is making a second attempt by studying “social pollution” on Twitter, and engaging in a free-speech analysis one FCC commissioner described as “straight out of a George Orwell novel.”

The National Science Foundation — the federal agency charged with promoting science, advancing welfare and securing national defense — is funding said study by researchers at Indiana University, who will mine Twitter data and categorize users’ politically related tweets into convenient government definitions of “social pollution,” “social epidemics” and “misinformation.”

Two of those same researchers, Filippo Menczer and Alessandro Flammini, co-authored a paper in 2012 examining social media use during the 2010 midterm election, which focused on “right-leaning Twitter users” who exhibited “greater levels of political activity, a more tightly interconnected social structure, and a communication network topology that facilitates the rapid and broad dissemination of political information.”

The study, dubbed “Truthy,” has already received almost $1 million from the government to “mitigate the diffusion of false and misleading ideas, detect hate speech and subversive propaganda, and assist in the preservation of open debate.”

“But there’s much more to the story,” Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed. “Focusing in particular on political speech, Truthy keeps track of which Twitter accounts are using hashtags such as #teaparty and #dems. It estimates users’ ‘partisanship.’ It invites feedback on whether specific Twitter users, such as the Drudge Report, are ‘truthy’ or ‘spamming.’ And it evaluates whether accounts are expressing ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ sentiments toward other users or memes.”

Pai noted the similarity between the Truthy study and the FCC’s recent CIN (Critical Information Needs) study, which aimed to assess how the news media covered “critical information” by sending FCC regulators into the offices of major television, newspaper, and internet media outlets across the country to evaluate their news coverage.

The agency was forced to scrap the study earlier this year amid widespread media criticism and allegations of attempting to censor the news media. Pai was one of the study’s chief critics. (RELATED: FCC Scraps Media Survey Amid Allegations Of Trying To Regulate News)

“The episode reaffirmed that the American people, not their government, determine what their critical information needs are and that the First Amendment means the government has no place in the newsroom,” Pai wrote. “Truthy’s entire premise is false. In the United States, the government has no business entering the marketplace of ideas to establish an arbiter of what is false, misleading or a political smear. Nor should the government be involved in any effort to squint for and squelch what is deemed to be ‘subversive propaganda.'”

“Instead, the merits of a viewpoint should be determined by the public through robust debate. I had thought we had learned these lessons long ago.”

In addition to the aforementioned goals, the project abstract states the team plans to create a web service open to the public based on their findings “for monitoring trends, bursts, and suspicious memes.”

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