Stephen Colbert-Inspired Site “Truthy” Is a Swift Boat Torpedo for Twitter Users

In studying “the science of truthiness,” Indiana University researchers crunch massive amounts of Twitter data and discover where memes get their start. With the click of a simple “Truthy” button, users can flag suspected misinformation.



‘Tis the season, sadly, for misinformation. With elections coming up on November 2nd, we can pretty much expect the Internet to be clogged with falsehoods, outright lies, and general wrongness. But the Internet is supposedly getting smarter, right? Shouldn’t there be a way to flag spurious claims that Candidate X is a Zoroastrian, that Candidate Y hates puppies, and that Candidate Z was born on the moon?

Researchers at Indiana University have just launched, which they humbly declare a “a sophisticated new Twitter-based research tool that combines data mining, social network analysis and crowdsourcing to uncover deceptive tactics and misinformation leading up to the Nov. 2 elections.”

Truthy button

What the Truthy team does is sift through thousands of tweets to figure out how a certain meme was born and how it grew. Drilling down through statistics helps Truthy draw a picture of a meme’s history. (See top image.)

“The diffusion networks are calculated, and the images are generated automatically for every meme that we track. Memes are tracked based on criteria including whether we think they are relevant to a theme (currently the elections), whether they are gathering a significant share of the volume of tweets (attention), and whether we observe a burst in volume of tweets about the meme,” Indiana’s Filippo Menczer, who specializes in the modeling of meme explosions, tells Fast Company. “All of these decisions are
done algorithmically, in real time, based on data from the Twitter
streaming API.”

The Truthy website also offers “diffusion network images” to help visualize the data they crunch, graphically representing the size and flow of the meme. Below, for instance, an animation of the diffusion network for Lady Gaga.

advertisement should be a particularly useful tool to spot so-called “astroturfing,” i.e., when PR teams inject memes into the discourse by disguising them as genuine “grassroots” behavior. With the simple click of a button “Truthy” button, users can call BS on claims that smell fishy.

The Truthy team seems to have plans of their own for how to make their information-purity campaign take off in popularity. They named their site, after all, after a word coined by Stephen Colbert. A recent tweet from Truthy was directed at the comedian: “@StephenAtHome check out http// for the science of #truthiness.” Did it get through?

“That would be fun,” Menczer says. “Actually I just heard that the university has
been in contact with the Colbert show.”


About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal