How the Right-Wing Media Smeared a Science Project

A real-life test of whether a lie spreads faster than the truth.

Oct 24 2014, 4:00pm

Image: Tyler Merbler/Flickr

The saying "a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes," might be ironically misattributed to Mark Twain, but a real-world test of the phrase found that it's nevertheless probably right.

"Truthy" is an Indiana University computer science project that studies how memes spread across social networks. Like many research projects, it's funded in part by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense.

For four years, all of these facts were publicly available and covered in the mainest of mainstream media outlets like The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, USA Today, The Guardian, The Atlantic, just everywhere. They all covered Truthy as interesting science news.

But then, just this fall, Truthy's meme itself transformed. As it spread into specifically right-wing publications, the tone of the pieces went from "computer science studies social networks" to "the federal government is spending nearly $1 million to create an online database that will track 'misinformation' and hate speech on Twitter," to being decried by the head of a congressional subcommittee for "limiting free speech on Twitter and other social media."

I reached out to Fil Menczer, the director of the center at IU where the research is being conducted, because, conveniently, he studies how information spreads and changes, and even more conveniently, he also knows better than anyone else what Truthy actually does. If anyone knows the relative speed of truth and lies spreading—if not across the world, then at least across the internet—it's this guy.

"There is no doubt that the false ('truthy') meme has spread much faster and wider than all the accurate ones, consistent with the famous aphorism you mention," Menczer told me. "The truthy meme was immediately echoed by several tens of blogs and news sites, even before any reporter thought of contacting us to check on its accuracy."

Truthy, described accurately, had four years of low-profile fame being written about on science websites. Truthy described "truthily" took two months in the right-wing echo chamber to be decried by the US House of Representatives Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith. What the hell?

"There is research that explains this adoption pattern in terms of people being ready to believe something that reinforces their beliefs," Menczer said. "In this case people who are worried about the NSA's secret surveillance programs and about government over-reach, are ready to believe a conspiracy theory that plays into that fear. On top of that, when the news comes from authority sources such as popular news media and influential politicians, that makes it even more credible."

"Sadly, corrections are not effective."

Although Menczer told me that "sadly, corrections are not effective," it's worth noting that contrary to what a really paranoid Washington Post op-ed contends, Truthy isn't targeting right-wing publications or political groups or, as Fox News posited, looking for hate speech.

"We are not able to determine the truth of a statement or claim," Menczer told me, "so our research so far has focused on detecting abuse of social media to manipulate or mislead, for example by creating fake accounts, or social bots, to make it look like something is happening—for example that someone is popular, or something is trending—when it's not."

So those who would stick up for the right to astroturf may have reason to be suspicious of Truthy, although the project itself doesn't actually exert anything onto social networks. But that's not limiting free speech. In Menczer's estimation, it's making sure that free speech can take place.

"If people are aware of possible manipulations, they will not be tricked so easily and this will preserve the usefulness of social media for open and helpful debate—similarly to how good spam filters and awareness of scams preserves the usefulness of email," he said.

He still seems excited by the research possibilities that social media allows, like what it can tell us about the stock market, election outcomes, or social movements, or even which memes are likely to go viral.

And now Truthy knows firsthand that shouting "government study" is all that it takes to rankle a certain segment of the population. I only hope their funding holds out long enough to discover how to spread some goddamn rationality.