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Government-Funded Science: Monitoring What You Say On Twitter

By Kevin Glass

The Washington Free Beacon yesterday reported on researchers at Indiana University, supported by a National Science Foundation grant, creating a database of “political smears, astroturfing, misinformation, and other social pollution” – called “Truthy”:

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.

“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.

There might be a good reason to do this study. Scientists are often interested in all sorts of ways that modern technology affects communication. What does seem clear is that this is, at best, on the fringes of what should be considered for publicly-funded research. If there’s a public goods angle here, it’s difficult to see.

This represents a major PR problem for government-funded science. On the one hand, many people think there’s value in government money being used for science research. On the other hand, stretching it to funding databases of hate-tweets and shrimp treadmills sure makes it seem like there’s probably a better use for public money.

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