Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


How Truthy is the Twitter Torrent?

• October 07, 2010 • 12:23 PM

Just in time for midterms, cyber-epidemiologists create a tool to examine the questionable memes making the rounds on Twitter.

Memes divide and replicate on the Internet in a way they never did through old-fashioned media or word of mouth. In a matter of mouse clicks, the government is planning death panels. The president is a Muslim. There are headless bodies in the desert, medical microchips under our skin and IRS agents are coming for our guns.

None of these are true. The question is, who floated these ideas in the first place (presumably while knowing that)? And would it make you feel any better if you knew?

“Right now, from your cell phone, pretty much anywhere in the world, you can just push a button and send a message to potentially thousands of people,” said Filippo Menczer, an associate professor of computer science and informatics at Indiana University. “That’s amazingly easy. The cost is very, very low. But that also means that the system is more vulnerable because the cost is lower, so abuse can also happen more easily.”

Menczer and several of his Indiana colleagues are not particularly interested in politics, but they know that these days, in the final stretch of a national election, some of the worst such abuse in cyberspace is coming in the form of political smears and “Astroturf” campaigns. And so they have set out to help the public uncover the original misinformers, all in service of studying disingenuous ideas that spread a lot like disease.

Last week, Menczer and his colleagues (including Alessandro Vespignani, who studies epidemics of the informational and biological kind) unveiled the website truthy.indiana.edu.

“Swiftboaters beware!” they announce on the landing page.
[class name="dont_print_this"]

Idea Lobby

THE IDEA LOBBY
Miller-McCune's Washington correspondent Emily Badger follows the ideas informing, explaining and influencing government, from the local think tank circuit to academic research that shapes D.C. policy from afar.

[/class]
The “truthy” tool is designed to allow us to track the spread of ambiguously honest revelations migrating around Twitter. The site mines the data collected — much of it through Twitter’s publicly available application programming interface — for several “truthiness factors,” including the number of Tweets about a meme and the identity of its “top broadcaster.” This information is then modeled in timelines and animated diffusion networks.

The researchers have set the system to filter for political content, drawing on URLs, hash tags and mentions related to politically active groups and candidates for every office up for grabs this fall. From there, they’re looking for the suspicious: memes that suddenly surge in popularity or those drawing a significant fraction of Twitter’s traffic.

“When we do a history backward in time, we can see early in the epidemic who is the user who has produced the most Tweets in the first phase, who is the user who has done the most re-tweets.” Menczer said.

They can uncover a surprising amount of information that way.

How Truthy is the Twitter Torrent

An example of a diffusion network from the Truthy website. (2010 Indiana University)

“In fact, we find cases where there’s a lot of traffic between a small number of users, and sometimes when we look at them, we find out these are fake accounts — you can guess these are maybe computer-generated names. Those are clearly suspicious types of patterns,” he said. “Or you can take the 10 users producing the most traffic, and look at how long ago these accounts were created. If they were all created in the past six hours, then that’s a very suspicious type of behavior, right?”

(Investigating the origins of the meme “truthy” itself is not so difficult — Menczer and company happily acknowledge that they’ve borrowed the term from comedian Stephen Colbert, a pioneer of the nonfact stated as truth with real conviction.)

The Truthy algorithm additionally rates each of the memes on a “sentiment analysis,” a scale between two points of contrasting emotion: hostile-kind, anxious-calm, depressed-happy. Eventually, the researchers hope to study whether certain types of memes — say, the ones that really tick us off — spread faster or differently than others.

Twitter users are invited to help with the effort, flagging suspicious memes into the system themselves through their Truthy website. The idea is to create a kind of nonpartisan public service, a tool for people who want to better understand where their information comes from.

As for whether Truthy could also have another impact — shaming the misinformers until they stop misinforming — Menczer said, “Of course that’s very desirable, but it’s way too early to say if we will be able to do that.”

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

More From Emily Badger

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 2 • 5:00 AM

Give Us This Day Our Daily Brands

Researchers find identifying with brand-name products reduces religiosity.


October 2 • 4:00 AM

Why Can’t Anyone Break the Women’s Marathon Record?

Paula Radcliffe set the world record in 2003. Since then? No one’s come within three minutes of her mark.


October 1 • 2:00 PM

Most People With Addiction Simply Grow Out of It. Why Is This Widely Denied?

The idea that addiction is typically a chronic, progressive disease that requires treatment is false, the evidence shows. Yet the “aging out” experience of the majority is ignored by treatment providers and journalists.


October 1 • 1:00 PM

Midlife Neuroticism Linked to Alzheimer’s Disease in Old Age

New research from Sweden suggests that the personality dimension is connected to who ultimately suffers from late-in-life dementia.



October 1 • 11:11 AM

The Creative Class Boondoggle in Downtown Las Vegas

On Tony Hsieh and the pseudoscience of “collisions.”


October 1 • 9:14 AM

Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.


October 1 • 6:00 AM

Would You Like a Subscription With Your Coffee?

A new app hopes to unite local coffee shops while helping you find a cheap cup of good coffee.


October 1 • 4:00 AM

How to Plant a Library

Somewhere outside of Oslo, there are 1,000 newly planted spruce trees. One hundred years from now, if everything goes to plan, they’ll be published together as 100 pieces of art.



September 30 • 10:09 AM

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.


September 30 • 8:00 AM

The Psychology of Penmanship

Graphology: It’s all (probably) bunk.



September 30 • 6:00 AM

The Medium Is the Message, 50 Years Later

Five decades on, what can Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media tell us about today?


September 30 • 4:00 AM

Grad School’s Mental Health Problem

Navigating the emotional stress of doctoral programs in a down market.


September 29 • 1:21 PM

Conference Call: Free Will Conference


September 29 • 12:00 PM

How Copyright Law Protects Art From Criticism

A case for allowing the copyright on Gone With the Wind to expire.


September 29 • 10:00 AM

Should We Be Told Who Funds Political Attack Ads?

On the value of campaign finance disclosure.


September 29 • 8:00 AM

Searching for a Man Named Penis

A quest to track down a real Penis proves difficult.


September 29 • 6:00 AM

Why Do So Many People Watch HGTV?

The same reason so many people watch NCIS or Law and Order: It’s all a procedural.


September 29 • 4:00 AM

The Link Between Depression and Terrorism

A new study from the United Kingdom finds a connection between depression and radicalization.


September 26 • 4:00 PM

Fast Track to a Spill?

Oil pipeline projects across America are speeding forward without environmental review.


September 26 • 2:00 PM

Why Liberals Love the Disease Theory of Addiction, by a Liberal Who Hates It

The disease model is convenient to liberals because it spares them having to say negative things about poor communities. But this conception of addiction harms the very people we wish to help.


September 26 • 1:21 PM

Race, Trust, and Split-Second Judgments


September 26 • 9:47 AM

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what’s new and different more attractive.


Follow us


Mysterious Resting State Networks Might Be What Allow Different Brain Therapies to Work

Deep brain stimulation and similar treatments target the hubs of larger resting-state networks in the brain, researchers find.

Trust Is Waning, and Inequality May Be to Blame

Trust in others and confidence in institutions is declining, while economic inequality creeps up, a new study shows.

Dopamine Might Be Behind Impulsive Behavior

A monkey study suggests the brain chemical makes what's new and different more attractive.

School Counselors Do More Than You’d Think

Adding just one counselor to a school has an enormous impact on discipline and test scores, according to a new study.

How a Second Language Trains Your Brain for Math

Second languages strengthen the brain's executive control circuits, with benefits beyond words.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.