Fed-backed Twitter study draws fire

 

A Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission is warning about a government-backed study that “seems to have come straight out of a George Orwell novel.”

Commissioner Ajit Pai — one of two Republicans on the five-member commission — warned in a Washington Post op-ed on Saturday about a National Science Foundation study of people's communications on Twitter, which he said amounted to government monitoring of people’s speech.

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“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,” he wrote.  

“The federal government has no business spending your hard-earned money on a project to monitor political speech on Twitter.”

The “Truthy” study, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, is being developed by Indiana University researchers to study how popular ideas and jokes spread throughout popular culture. One focus is the spread of “political smears, astroturfing, misinformation, and other social pollution,” researchers said.

“While the vast majority of memes arise in a perfectly organic manner, driven by the complex mechanisms of life on the Web, some are engineered by the shady machinery of high-profile congressional campaigns,” the university explained.

To Pai, the project sounds a lot like the FCC’s contentious plans to study the editorial practices of newsrooms, which many said could be a violation of the constitutional right to freedom of the press.  

Pai was a major critic of that effort and his alarms helped to have it scrapped in February. 

“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,” he wrote in Saturday’s op-ed.

“That principle applies here.”