Menus Subscribe Search

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

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

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