The government is getting into the fact-checking business. Be very, very afraid.
Fact checking has become a virtual industry unto itself in the last several years, but this trend has arguably created more controversies than it attempts to resolve. And with the advent of a government-funded fact-checking project called Truthy, it appears our fact-checking culture may have finally veered into the sinister.
Professional fact checkers, many of whom sprout from traditional media outlets that themselves should be the subject of scrutiny, attempt to debunk what they see as false narratives and dubious claims. They offer charming methods of ranking their findings, such as pants on fire, Pinocchios, and so on.
But as often as not, their arguments and conclusions come under fire from others, too. Critics examine their target selection, their use and analysis of the data, and their conclusions, and accuse the fact checkers of having agendas of their own. It makes for a robust debate, which only underscores the fact that a definitive and categorical identification of "truth" remains elusive to the fact-checking industry.
Or so we thought, until this week. The National Science Foundation has embarked on a little-known project to create an online database of "political smears, astroturfing, misinformation, and other social pollution," reports Elizabeth Harrington of The Washington Free Beacon. Called "Truthy" after a running gag on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, the project is centered at Indiana University, where the Computer & Information Science & Engineering Department has accepted a federal grant of nearly $1 million for the effort.
Truthy has a wider scope than just fact checking, though. The grant's abstract states that the database will provide analysis of "meme diffusion in large-scale social media by collecting and analyzing massive streams of public micro-blogging data," which might be useful for public relations firms, media organizations, and perhaps even individual consumers.
However, what Indiana University's researchers claim as Truthy's public benefit raised a few eyebrows.
"We will create a web service open to the public for monitoring trends, bursts, and suspicious memes," the abstract concludes. "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."
What constitutes a "suspicious meme," anyway? What is a "false and misleading idea," for that matter? Ideas may be good or bad, useful or impractical, and sometimes dangerous. But the use of the phrase "false and misleading" applies much more to arguments rather than ideas — and especially political arguments. Even more worrisome is the claim that Truthy will track "subversive propaganda," since the terms subversive and propaganda rely on subjective judgments.
The better question is this: Who makes these subjective judgments? At least at first, the answer would be the researchers who are building Truthy under a federal grant from the NSF. It's not too hard to imagine a scenario in which the federal government would eventually find a use for Truthy, and would make the subjective judgments on how best to monitor political speech on social media.
Reason's Bobby Soave points out the basic contradiction in claiming, as the abstract does, to support "the preservation of open debate" while attempting to apply labels to speech such as "suspicious memes," "hate speech," and "subversive propaganda," as well as determining which arguments constitute an "organic meme" versus an "inorganic" one. "Those seem like conflicting goals," Soave writes, "even if pursued in a totally apolitical way."
Or an "inorganic" way, for that matter. Truthy is the very definition of a top-down determination of the legitimacy of public speech. In a free society, citizens make those determinations for themselves. That is the organic approach to political speech, stemming from those who wish to engage in — or become spectators to — the contest of ideas, arguments, analyses, and proposals. Instead of allowing people to reach their own conclusions about those ideas and arguments, Truthy and the NSF instead appear to want to delegitimize the people who engage in those debates, which would in any other circumstance become the very kind of political smear that Truthy is supposedly designed to protect against.
The fact-checking industry, for all its faults, at least uses a free-market approach to criticism and debate that Truthy would pervert. Citizens of a free nation who value political speech shouldn't pay a dime for Truthy, let alone a million dollars. Its abstract describes an apparatus for state control of political thought, as though its proposers read George Orwell's 1984 as a how-to rather than a cautionary tale.