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Computer scientists say meme research doesn't threaten free speech


Artist's image of creative digital life.

In a letter to lawmakers Tuesday, five of the nation's top computing research organizations (including ACM) defended a research grant to study how information goes viral, in response to claims the government-funded effort could help create a 1984-type surveillance state.

Credit: iStockphoto

In a letter to lawmakers Tuesday, five of the nation's top computing research organizations defended a research grant to study how information goes viral. The groups were responding to claims that the government-funded effort could help create a 1984-type surveillance state.

The controversy arises over a nearly $1 million research grant to researchers at Indiana University (IU) to investigate "why some ideas cause viral explosions while others are quickly forgotten," particularly on Twitter.

This information diffusion analysis project, dubbed "Truthy," is under attack by a number of lawmakers, including U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. Smith said the government "has no business using taxpayer dollars to support limiting free speech on Twitter and other social media.

Kevin McCarthy (R- Calif.), the House majority leader, said last week that Truthy's goal is to "evaluate users' 'partisanship' and to track 'subversive propaganda.'"

The research project is well under way, and the principal investigator, Filippo Menczer, professor of informatics and computer science director at the Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research at IU, pointed, in an email to the more than 30 papers already published about it.

There's also a demo site, with models illustrating memes.

As for why these attacks are arising now, Menczer declined to speculate "because that would drag us into politics, and we would rather keep focusing on our research," he said. "But we were caught completely by surprise by both the timing and the deliberately misleading nature of the attacks in some online blogs and news sites, which were eventually echoed by the lawmakers."

 

From Computerworld
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