Whatever your political bent, it’s safe to say that politics today are dominated by smears and half-truths, lent enormous reach thanks to the Web. Did you hear that Barack Obama is a Muslim that took his vows on the Koran? Or that the Fed is going to put North America on the Amero? Or that fascists walk in the halls of government? You heard it on the Internet and millions are saying the same thing, so it must be true.
A new infographic project out of Indiana University is aiming to combat that: Truthy tracks virulent memes on the Internet, via charts that evolve as rumors spread. (The project gets its name from a term pumped up by Stephen Colbert. “Truthy” being lies calculated to deceive, because they take some nugget of truth and twist it into an unrecognizably muddy form.)
Truthy combines crowdsourcing and automated tracking. Users first report a Twitter hashtag as “truthy”; the Web crawlers at the site then start following that hashtag, tracking who’s retweeting it and also using language algorithms to gauge the sentiment of the retweeters (angry or depressed, for example). You also get helpful stats, such as who the most common retweeter; the most influential retweeter; and how long the retweeters have been active on Twitter (helpful for spotting astroturfing).
It’s all presented in one handy dashboard, for each Truthy meme. Here’s one for #TCOT — short for “Top Conservatives on Twitter”:
[Click to go to interactive page]
The tool is incredibly fun to play with; from a data viz standpoint, the only real thing we’re yearning for is some type of interactive weighting of the diffusion maps, so that you can see exactly where the most influential Twitter activity is happening and click on it to investigate.
But we wonder how much impact Truthy can actually have. For one, there’s a category problem in the data: A blunt hashtag such as #teaparty or #TCOT picks up a lot of noise, and it doesn’t actually track a specific meme that’s propagating. Moreover, it seems to us that the problem with truthiness on the web is that whether a meme is false or not doesn’t matter to the people who are spreading it. Thus, the problem with something like the birthers’ libeling Obama is not that the claim is provably false, it’s that the people who believe it will not be convinced otherwise, no matter how much anyone tries. The biggest challenge isn’t finding who’s spreading the rumor — it’s a much deeper one about the dark and hazy psychology of our politics and the increasingly subtle ways that mainstream politicians name-check slanders without embracing them.