Congress should defer to experts on 'Truthy,' computer scientists say

Five leading groups in the computer science industry are urging Congress to consult experts when investigating the funding of a university project that studies Twitter trends.

They said the "Truthy" project at Indiana University does not represent a threat to free speech on the Internet. 

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Members of Congress should "call on subject-matter experts to help guide your investigation and not let media mischaracterizations of the work color your effort," the groups write in a letter sent Tuesday to House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas). 

The project dates back to 2011 and is funded by the federal National Science Foundation. It came under recent criticism by Republicans who claimed it appeared to come straight out of a George Orwell novel. 

Last month, Smith said his panel would investigate why the government funded the project following the publication of an op-ed written by a Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission who raised concerns. 

The project samples real-time public tweets to identify and study trending topics, political and otherwise. An important area of study for the project is "how social media can be abused."

In the letter Tuesday, the groups said the project could help researchers studying the flow of information. 

It can also help law enforcement and bolster national security by "helping explain how movements organize across the globe using these new communication tools, helping understand the effectiveness of government communications for disaster preparedness and response, and helping authorities understand how frauds propagate," according to the letter. 

The project's administrators have defended it, saying more than 30 research papers have been written. They have insisted it is not a government probe of social media. 

"The work is not a database tracking hate speech, or even defining it. It simply visualizes the patterns of flow of publicly available information in the Twitter stream," according to the letter Tuesday. 

The letter was signed by the leaders of the Computing Research Association, the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence, the Association for Computing Machinery, the Society for Industrial and Applied Mathematics and the USENIX Association.