Five things to know about ‘Truthy’

Members of the House Science Committee are ramping up scrutiny of a university project that studies trends on Twitter.

Criticism of the government-funded “Truthy” project at Indiana University grew over the weekend, after Ajit Pai, a Republican member of the Federal Communications Commission, sounded the alarm.

“A government-funded initiative is going to ‘assist in the preservation of open debate’ by monitoring social media for ‘subversive propaganda’ and combating what it considers to be ‘the diffusion of false and misleading ideas?’ ” he wrote in an op-ed. “The concept seems to have come straight out of a George Orwell novel.”

House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) on Tuesday said his panel is investigating why the government’s National Science Foundation (NSF) funded the project and accused the agency of using taxpayer money to limit free speech.

Here are five things to know about the project.

More than 30 research papers have been written around the project. Much of the early work explored the partisan differences in social media use and the spread of misinformation online.

The Indiana University computer science department 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.”

According to its initial grant abstract in 2011, the researchers seek to “explore why some ideas cause viral explosions while others are quickly forgotten.” The section of the abstract that has attracted suspicion proposed a Web service so the public could monitor “trends, bursts, and suspicious memes. This service could mitigate the diffusion of false and misleading ideas, detect hate speech and subversive propaganda, and assist in the preservation of open debate.”


The federal government’s National Science Foundation issued a grant to the project in 2011. It has been given $919,917 since 2011, with the grant set to expire in June 2015.

The project is also funded through the James S. McDonnell Foundation.

“Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the funding agencies,” the project says on its website.

The NSF had a budget of a little more than $7 billion in 2014, with most of the money going toward research projects.


The project has explored the partisan differences in social media use and the spread of misinformation online, among a number of broader issues. 

One study highlighted an attack on Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) when he was first running for his seat in 2010. It found that one social media campaign criticizing him for spending taxpayer money on dinners and fashion shows was largely the result of 10 Twitter bots.

The project has also studied subjects such as the “evolution of online user behavior during a social upheaval” and “the digital evolution of Occupy Wall Street.”


The program first came under criticism in August after conservative media outlets began to highlight the research.

In response, the department penned a blog post it called the “Truth about Truthy.” In a series of bullet points, the department said the project is not a “political watchdog, a government probe of social media, an attempt to suppress free speech, a way to define ‘misinformation,’ a partisan political effort, [or] a database tracking hate speech.”

“There is a good dose of irony in a research project that studies the diffusion of misinformation becoming the target of such a powerful disinformation machine,” the research department wrote.


“Truthiness” won the Word of the Year award in a Merriam-Webster online survey in 2006 after TV host Stephen Colbert coined the term during his pilot episode of “The Colbert Report.”

“We are divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart,” Colbert said at the time, during a segment mocking then-President George W. Bush.

“That is where the truth comes from ladies and gentlemen: the gut,” he added.

The department said the word seemed to fit the first project on “Astroturf campaigns,” or preplanned social media strategies meant to appear spontaneous.

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