The Truthy Shall Set You Free

Kissing cousin to Lawprof Danielle Citron’s Cyber Civil Rights movement, dedicated to the criminalization of words and ideas that offend her delicate sensibilities and, well, just piss her off, is the government’s latest effort to cleanse the internet.  As reported in the Washington Free Beacon:

The federal government is spending nearly $1 million to create an online database that will track “misinformation” and hate speech on Twitter.

The National Science Foundation is financing the creation of a web service that will monitor “suspicious memes” and what it considers “false and misleading ideas,” with a major focus on political activity online.

What might they mean by “false and misleading ideas”?  The earth is flat?  John Bad Elk is still good law?  Vaccines cause autism? 

The “Truthy” database, created by researchers at Indiana University, is designed to “detect political smears, astroturfing, misinformation, and other social pollution.”

Political smears sounds suspiciously like ideas that are intended to harm the regime, leaving it to the regime to decide what ideas about itself are good and what smear.  What could possibly go wrong?

“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,” the grant said.

This goes to the core aspiration of every true believer, to eliminate speech that disputes their world view because it’s WRONG, WRONG, WRONG!!!  As Hans Bader explains:

It’s not the government’s role to rule to declare ideas “false or misleading.” Under the First Amendment, there’s “no such thing as a false idea,” according to the Supreme Court’s decision in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974).

Moreover, “hate speech” is protected under the First Amendment, and even commonplace views about race or gender have been branded as “hate speech” by government officials. The Supreme Court has made clear over and over again that hate speech in public settings is protected by the First Amendment in decisions like (1) R.A.V. v. St. Paul (1992); (2) Snyder v. Phelps (2011); and (3) Forsyth County v. Nationalist Movement (1992).

The argument, however, is artfully couched in the bizarrely circular reason that is adored by delicate teacups, that censorship of speech that hurts their feelings is necessary to preserve open debate.  To prevent you from scratching a hole in your head at that notion, allow me to explain.

In the minds of some who believe deeply in the full expression of ideas, with the provisos that robust dialogue be limited to their idea of civility, their idea of legitimate ideas, their lexicon of words that cause no one to feel badly about themselves, the elimination with prejudice of thought and language that fails to comport with their ideal encourages debate.

It’s just that it’s their debate. Now with the government’s seal of approval.

There is no question but that the internets, Twitter included, are replete with utter nonsense, wild and crazy ideas that range from the absurd to the ridiculous.  There is also no question, sadly, that people who are thought-challenged believe some of this dumb stuff online, perhaps for no better reason than the persistent belief that if it wasn’t true, they wouldn’t be allowed to say so.

They are. They can. It’s your job, as reader, to discern real from false.  I know, it’s a lot of work, and many people are ill-prepared to parse content and logic to figure out what claims and arguments are sound.  Nobody said free speech was easy.

But many say that free speech should be happy.  Happy in the sense that we should be capable of expressing our ideas without anyone disagreeing with us, except in dulcet tones, using moderated words, all designed to make us feel welcome in our expression of thought.  Provided it’s approved thought.

It’s bad enough that transient interest and identitarian groups have seized upon the idea, pandered to the unknowing public to promote their own flavor of hate. They hate all ideas that aren’t theirs.  But when the government sends nearly a cool mil to Indiana University to vet Twitter for politically unacceptable ideas, it’s no longer just a matter of challenging the teacups.

This First Amendment protection accords with the reality that politicians and their allies (such as judges they appointed or confirmed) will typically view speech critical of them as “false,” based on their own subjective, ideologically-based notions of what is “true” or “false.” “As aptly summarized by the Supreme Court,” in Thomas v. Collins, in the realm of political debate “‘every person must be his own watchman for truth, because the forefathers did not trust any government to separate the truth from the false for us.’”

Sure, it sucks when someone says something you find abhorrent or dangerously wrong.  Some people feel compelled to stay up all night because of it.

But just as ideas aren’t subject to the approval of self-appointed censors like Danielle Citron, they similarly aren’t any business of the United States of America, no matter who is in office or how artfully they pander to the public to justify the eradication of words and ideas that hurt your feelings or give you a headache.

Distinguishing between truth and truthy is our job, like it or not.  Preventing the government from doing it for us is our job as well. Get to work.

8 thoughts on “The Truthy Shall Set You Free

  1. Bartleby the Scrivener

    The government is not in charge of the truth, and the government does not exist to solve every problem experienced by the citizenry.

    “But this makes me mad! There ought to be a law!”

    There is a law. It’s called the First Amendment.

  2. Matthew I

    “The federal government is spending nearly $1 million to create an online database that will track ‘misinformation’ and hate speech on Twitter” is a disingenuous way of describing a research grant. These grants don’t give the NSF the right to secretly fudge data, and certainly don’t oblige researchers to produce the result the current ruling party wants. Could a database of strangely-propagating twitter memes or a study of influential twitters be misused? It “could” exist already, product of a secret Democratic/Republican National Committee project. There has been no reason given why this research grant is different from all the others, and asserting “it’s about truthiness!” doesn’t count (well yes, if they *were* micromanaging this that would be why, but are they at all?)

    Aside: they have a web app. There are (useless) pages for @Stephen_Colbert, @danieltosh, and @radleybalko, but none for @ScottGreenfield. You need to get out there, man!

    1. SHG Post author

      Two points that you neglect: First, if private parties are monitoring the workings of Twitter, that can’t be helped. Free country, and all. It’s the fact that the government is funding it that makes all the difference in the world.

      Second, there is no such thing as “misinformation” and “hate speech,” except as someone defines it. If the govt is funding research to identify misinformation and hate speech, that means it either was defined by the govt or to the govt’s satisfaction. Either way, wrong.

      And I’m no Tosh, Colbert or Balko. Just a lawyer.

      1. Matthew I

        There’s a difference between “A definition of ‘truthiness’ specific enough for someone to recieve a government contract” and “A definition of ‘truthiness’ robust enough to earn NSF grant money.” The definition that got grant money seems to be based on how the meme propagates (“This is one of a set of truthy memes smearing a candidate for U.S. Senate. Looking at the injection points of these memes, we uncovered a network of about ten bot accounts…”).

        1. SHG Post author

          Sometimes, I think people don’t actually read what they write. Or maybe they’re so bent on defending a vapid point that they can’t help themselves and just keep digging.

          No matter how you try to spin it, if it’s “a set of truthy memes…,” somebody has to decide what’s “truthy,” not to mention “misinformation” and “hate speech” which mysteriously disappeared in your last comment. There’s just no getting around it.

          1. Matthew I

            You characterized the Truthy database as “the government’s latest effort to cleanse the internet.” I see it as simply one of the tens of thousands of research projects the NSF exists to throw money at, and remain unconvinced by evidence that there’s a hidden agenda*, especially since the researchers are making their code and data public.

            (*I’m trying to avoid creating walls of text, but here’s why I’m unconvinced. If I assert that there’s nothing special about this project, that these researchers are honest about wanting to create a non-partisan service, and there is little chance that the NSF will micromanage this project more than it does others — what kind of evidence proves that assertion wrong?)

            (FWIW, earlier on I didn’t mention the other kinds of speech this study aims to define because I didn’t see the point: “Definitions of ‘truthiness,’ ‘misinformation,’ and ‘hate speech’ specific enough for someone to receive a government contract” and “Definitions of ‘truthiness,’ ‘misinformation,’ and ‘hate speech’ robust enough to receive NSF grant money…”)

            1. SHG Post author

              As we’ve already been through why one can’t search the twitters for “truthiness,” not to mention misinformation or hate speech, without defining them, let’s not rehash. That’s a loser.

              As for this being “noting special,” “simply one of the tens of thousand of research projects” funded, the govt buys tens of thousands of items. Some of them are purchased for the purpose of torture. That the govt also buys toilet paper doesn’t make the items bought for torture acceptable. This really shouldn’t be hard to follow.

              As for the govt’s agenda, if they wanted to do a study on how memes occur, or things go viral on the internet, that would be one thing, but then they would have no need to specifically direct it to truthiness, misinformation and hate speech, which is different. Words have meaning. You dismiss that as an inconvenient irrelevance. I do not.

              You try to spin the express purpose of the study/funding with “there is little chance that the NSF will micromanage this project.” trying to make create a “micromanagement” strawman argument. The disingenuous use of logical fallacies is revealing and unappreciated. Walk away before the hole you’ve dug collapses and crushes you.

  3. MJBees

    I have not used Twitter in the past. But I have started a diary of ”suspicious and misleading memes” for future use at every free wifi spot I can use as I travel–airports should be fun. I just aim to participate.
    More’s the pity that I do not possess more of the wit and ‘sarc’ that I enjoy on this website.

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