Congressman: ‘Government Has No Business’ Studying ‘Social Pollution’ On Twitter

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
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Texas Republican and House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith joined the rising tide of criticism against a government-funded study of political “social pollution” on Twitter this week, accusing the federal agency behind the study of attempting to limit free speech on social media.

“The government has no business using taxpayer dollars to support limiting free speech on Twitter and other social media,” Smith said in a Tuesday Hill report about The National Science Foundation‘s “Truthy” study, which seeks to mine Twitter data and categorize users’ politically related tweets into convenient government definitions of “social pollution,” “social epidemics” and “misinformation.” (RELATED: The Government Wants To Censor Social Media By Studying ‘Social Pollution’ On Twitter)

“The NSF is out of touch and out of control,” Smith said. “The Science Committee is investigating how this grant came to be awarded taxpayer dollars.”

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.” Two of the study’s researchers co-authored a paper on a similar topic 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.”

Federal Communications Commissioner Ajit Pai — who chiefly criticized a similar FCC study aimed at evaluating news outlets across the U.S. — described the Truthy study as “straight out of a George Orwell novel” in a recent op-ed. (RELATED: FCC Scraps Media Survey Amid Allegations Of Trying To Regulate News)

“But there’s much more to the story,” Pai wrote in the Washington Post. “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 described the entire study’s premise as false, and said 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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