How misinformation goes viral: a Truthy story

Conservative media's reaction to an Indiana University project shows how shoddy information can quickly become an online narrative

On August 26, Fox’s Megyn Kelly aired a four-minute segment on an Indiana University project called Truthy, declaring sarcastically, “Some bureaucrat deciding whether you are being hateful or misinforming people — what could possibly go wrong?” Fox & Friends jumped onto the bandwagon two days later. During its four-minute segment, legal analyst Peter Johnson Jr. managed to squeeze in not only a comparison to Joseph McCarthy, but also a reference to George Orwell’s 1984. “Is the First Amendment going into the dumper?” he asks. 

The segments can be traced to a story published on a right-wing news site the previous Monday, which spawned a conspiratorial narrative that soon metastasized throughout social media and the conservative blogosphere. By Thursday, the Fox television programs had spread the Orwellian gospel to nearly 3.5 million estimated viewers, not including those online. 

But Truthy isn’t new. Indiana University researchers have spent more than three years on the project. They analyze the way information including misinformation spreads on Twitter, focusing on virality and how various communities share political discourse through hashtags, retweets, and mentions. 

None of the journalists “reporting” on Truthy last week explained the scope of the project, including more than 30 published papers, when crafting their viral output. Instead, they pointed to a two-paragraph abstract in Truthy’s $919,917 National Science Foundation grant, awarded in 2011, as evidence of a link to government surveillance programs. This has all been public since 2011 per grant rules, so it’s unclear why conservative media put it in the crosshairs now.

“We were completely blindsided,” said project leader Filippo Menczer, adding that CJR on Thursday was the first media outlet to speak with him. Menczer had just finalized plans with his research team to analyze how Monday’s story in the Washington Free Beacon — “patient zero” in contagion parlance — had become a viral meme in and of itself.

“It’s weird to do an analysis on something that’s happening to us,” he said.

By understanding the way this sort of information organically spreads across the network, researchers hope to be able to distinguish more inorganic patterns. They have recently analyzed “political astroturfing” — campaign or partisan groups tweeting under the guise of grassroots activity — reported on the digital evolution of Occupy Wall Street, created framework to differentiate between spontaneous and manufactured Twitter memes, and studied whether information goes viral by spreading between communities or within them. Such knowledge carries potentially huge implications as more political activity and social interactions move online. 

Despite Truthy’s body of work, the headline atop the Free Beacon’s story on Monday read, “Feds creating database to track ‘hate speech’ on Twitter.” The piece itself was less blunt in its conclusions on the project. But author Elizabeth Harrington made sure to highlight its Stephen Colbert-inspired name and Menczer’s previous support for liberal political groups —  a fact he makes publicly available online. Harrington did not respond to a request for comment.

“The headlines are saying something that is completely false and fabricated,” Menczer said. “We are not defining hate speech. We are not tracking people. We don’t have a database.” 

None of those facts stopped readers from spreading the story. The Free Beacon’s article was shared about 4,000 times on Twitter and 10,000 times on Facebook, according to Muck Rack analytics. It was crossposted on the next day, garnering an additional 2,000 shares on Twitter and 15,000 shares on Facebook. And it was quickly picked up by a handful of other prominent right-wing websites, becoming fodder for paranoia-inducing analyses by The Week, Reason, and “Other blogs twisted the meme and mutated the meme until it became completely outlandish,” Menczer said. “I don’t think there’s anything we can say to change that.” 

The coverage even veered into one of conservatives’ favorite topics: failings of the mainstream media. On Wednesday, conservative blogger Ed Morrissey wrote in a post, “the national media appears to have gone radio silent on this latest project.” A quick Google search proves otherwise: Truthy was featured by NPR in 2010, the Wall Street Journal and CJR in 2011, and Fast Co. in 2012, among others. Its research has been cited by dozens of other outlets, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, and CNN. 

“I think, unfortunately, this is exactly the type of misinformation machinery that we study,” Menczer said. “[Right-wing publications] couldn’t care less about us. They’re using this to say something about Obama and the federal government.” 


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David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti. Tags: , , , ,