Government Twitter Censor Study Researchers Sought To Exclusively Ban Conservative Accounts

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
Font Size:

The “Truthy” government-funded study examining “social pollution” on social media has come under fire from an FCC commissioner in recent weeks for seemingly targeting conservatives on Twitter — an allegation furthered by a 2012 article co-authored by Truthy’s lead researcher, in which researchers describe exclusively reporting and banning conservative accounts.

The article in question titled “Abuse of social media and political manipulation” co-authored by Truthy principal investigator Filippo Menczer highlights examples of the researchers’ success in identifying bot or spam accounts spreading political memes, hashtags and messages on Twitter.

However, researchers only appeared interested in highlighting examples of social media abuse on one side of the digital aisle, as every example cited in the article was identified as a conservative meme, hashtag or account, many of which were banned after researchers reported them to Twitter.

In one instance study authors “observed bursts of activity” including the hashtag #ampat (short for American patriots), which they describe as “widely used by conservatives on Twitter.” According to the article, some 41,000 retweets containing the hashtag were traced back to two accounts belonging to the same person.

Researchers successfully suspended two other accounts from Twitter for generating and retweeting 10,000 tweets “in support of several Republican candidates, boosting for example the popularity of the site” In a third example, researchers uncovered a network of about 10 bot accounts that were “part of a campaign smearing a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate from Delaware.”

“Our system identified several truthy memes, resulting in many of the accounts involved being suspended by Twitter,” the researchers wrote.

Menczer and another Truthy researcher, 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.”

After the announcement of a House Science, Space and Technology Committee investigation into the study last week, Truthy researchers removed the tracking of multiple conservative hashtags and trending topics from the study’s website. (RELATED: Government Study To Censor Twitter Censors Website, Removes Tracking Of Conservative Hashtags)

Among the topics removed were #TCOT, #GOP, @SARAHPALINUSA and The Drudge Report, many of which can be seen included in the webpage’s original form.

“It is telling that Truthy researchers are trying to cover up the nature of this project now that the public is scrutinizing their work,” FCC Commissioner Ajiit Pai told The Daily Caller last week. “What are they trying to hide? This not-so-Truthy tactic further justifies the investigation launched by the House Science Committee.” (RELATED: Congressman: ‘Government Has No Business’ Studying ‘Social Pollution’ On Twitter)

Pai announced his support last week of the House probe into the Truthy study, which has received almost $1 million from the National Science Foundation so far to examine “social pollution,” “social epidemics” and “misinformation” on social media. (RELATED: FCC Commish Supports Probe Of Government Twitter Censorship)

Pai first brought attention to the study in a recent Washington Post op-ed, where he described Truthy as “straight out of a George Orwell novel.”

“Focusing in particular on political speech, Truthy keeps track of which Twitter accounts are using hashtags such as #teaparty and #dems,” Pai wrote. “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.” (RELATED: The Government Wants To Censor Social Media By Studying ‘Social Pollution’ On Twitter)

“The federal government has no business getting involved in a project that aspires to be the arbiter of political statements made on social media or assesses individuals’ political leanings,” Pai said in a later statement. “Among other things, Truthy also uses taxpayer dollars to evaluate the ‘partisanship’ of Americans’ Twitter accounts.”

Follow Giuseppe on Twitter and Facebook