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Internal emails obtained by the Washington Free Beacon through a public records request from Indiana University about “Truthy” reveal that the school monitored “hate tweets” and shunned media outlets critical of the project after details of the federally-funded study were made public last year.
Officials called a Free Beacon reporter a “faux journalist” for reporting on the taxpayer-funded project designed to root out “misinformation” and detect “hate speech” on Twitter. Truthy, which received almost $1 million in financing from the National Science Foundation (NSF), was responsible for suspending conservative Twitter accounts and removed part of its website that monitored political users, following the Free Beacon’s reporting.
“I told Fil [Menczer] tonight that we're done talking to faux journalists like the woman from the Washington Free Beacon who started this mess,” Mark Land, associate vice president for public affairs and government relations at Indiana University, wrote on Oct. 23. “I told him just to forward any further inquires to me so I can summarily ‘no comment' them.”
This prompted Robert Schnabel, dean of IU School of Informatics, to quip that Truthy could be used to identify “faux” news outlets.
“Good to know and we appreciate being able to rely on you to make the call on who falls in that category,” Schnabel wrote. “(Maybe Truthy needs a ‘faux journalist detector app’).”
The next morning, Land said the university would no longer be taking inquiries from the Free Beacon about the project. The Free Beacon had asked why Truthy removed its tracking tool of political hashtags.
Internal emails reveal the university’s initial reaction to the Free Beacon’s report on the project in August, which detailed Truthy’s goals to identify “false and misleading ideas” on Twitter and “detect hate speech and subversive propaganda.” The article also revealed head researcher Fil Menczer’s support for numerous progressive groups, including President Barack Obama’s Organizing for Action, Greenpeace, and MoveOn.org.
“FYI. Yesterday afternoon, a prominent conservative website published an article about the Truthy research project,” Thom Atkinson, a social media strategist at IU, wrote to the communications team on Aug. 26. The subject line read “Tweet Storm.”
“As a result, there has been a substantial amount of outrage expressed on Twitter about this threat to our freedom,” he said. “Most of the comments I've seen are attributing the project to President Obama and that it is a new type of mass surveillance database. But we are getting some hate tweets, too. I just thought you should be informed.”
Land, who is head of media relations at IU, then asked for examples of the “hate tweets.”
The so-called “hate tweets,” provided in a screenshot by Tracey Theriault, a social media manager, were mostly from a single user, Jim Terwiliger (@datsneefa). He tweeted: “University of Indiana helping to create fascist #policestate #traitors,” “wow, your school is #fascist as hell,” and “so you guys have become #fascists and #terrorists now?”
James P. Shea, senior director of planning and communications, then “looked up the tweeter.”
“We're certainly not the only organization (The White House, Chicago, police) he's disparaging, apparently from Texas,” Shea said. “Going to your personal email and [Facebook] fb pages is clearly out of reasonable boundaries.”
“My gut is to ignore him, although I'm very curious what Mark, Thomas, and Steve advise,” he added.
Land instructed the team to “keep monitoring” Terwiliger’s tweets and draft talking points for other criticism of the project.
“I agree with Jim – though we should keep monitoring,” Land replied. “He has a very small twitter following and I doubt that anyone will take him seriously.”
“The issue he raises – however misinformed his approach – could be one that we hear again from other, more credible sources,” he added. “With that in mind, it could be good to have some talking points about the research and what its true goals are handy to share if asked.”
Atkinson then provided a graph of Twitter traffic using the Truthy hashtag, which prior to the Free Beacon report was at zero. One tweet read, “@lndianaUniv should be proud!! They are a pathetic mouth piece for the failure that is liberalism #truthy.”
Atkinson then added, “UPDATE: Be warned! This item has now hit Fox News.”
Later that afternoon, Land sent another email to the communications team calling the Free Beacon “ultra-right wing.”
“Just a heads up that the Truthy work led by Fil Menzer [sic] is taking some heat now that word has gotten out that the NSZ [sic] has provided nearly $1 million in funding for the project that will create a database to track hate speech and misinformation,” Land wrote.
“It's being spun as an example of the Obama administration keeping track of political enemies, more encroachment on our privacy/speech rights etc.,” he said. “It started with some ultra-right wing types and is making it to the more mainstream conservatives like Drudge and Fox.”
“Fil is preparing some talking points about his research to offer the facts, which paint a different view than what these people are ranting about,” Land said.
Officials also dug into the background of FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai after he released an op-ed criticizing the project in October.
The emails revealed a critical attitude towards Pai, their authors suggesting that he likes to be in the spotlight, and sarcastically adding that an upcoming meeting between university researchers the Republican Commissioner “should be quite entertaining.”
“He's been around D.C. since the mid-to-late '90s, has worked mainly in communications law, appointed by President Obama to the FCC in '12,” wrote Brad Boswell, assistant director of government relations.
Boswell provided links to news coverage, including the editorial Pai wrote for the Wall Street Journal on the now dead “Critical Information Needs” FCC study to grill news editors on how they decide which stories to run.
“He definitely seems like being outspoken/heard/seen are priorities of his,” Boswell wrote.
“Thanks this is great…very comprehensive…the meeting with Pai should be quite entertaining…,” replied Doug Wasitis, assistant vice president for federal relations at Indiana University.
Land seemingly determined that Maureen Groppe, Washington Correspondent for Gannett, was a not a “faux journalist” and arranged an interview with Menczer in October, according to the emails. He also attempted to get positive coverage on Truthy from Inside Higher Ed. Editor Doug Lederman liked the idea, though meetings fell through.
Menczer defended Truthy as promoting free speech in Groppe’s article.
“If your opinions are based on things that are factually false, that hinders free speech because you have to be informed to have an engaged and useful conversation,” he said.
“Maureen, I just read your article, it is really good and completely accurate. Thank you so much!” Menczer wrote on Oct. 27.
After an email from Groppe thanking Land for the interview, Land bemoaned that he had to deal with critics of the project.
“It's really been a bit strange,” he said. “An ultra conservative writer from what seems to be a minor online news site in DC seized on the abstract a couple months ago and extrapolated several steps to arrive at the conclusion that the project was being used by the feds to keep tabs on speech.”
“Those claims were simply repeated by others when a similar agenda,” Land said. “Every real reporter he [sic] have talked to has at least tried to understand the project, but the critics have just kept repeating the same claims – even though we have answered the questions the same way to anyone who has asked.”
Land also dismissed the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee investigation into Truthy.
“Between you and me, we're getting a sense that the critics on the House Science committee are realizing they may have over-reached a bit,” he said. “We're getting a lot of support in academic circles and from the NSF on this.”
The emails show Land did have concerns about the project’s “questionable name,” taken from liberal comedian Stephen Colbert, and others worried about the impetus of the project as described by a university press release in 2010.
The press release hinted that former Sen. Scott Brown only won the Massachusetts Senate special election because of an “astroturf” campaign from a conservative group, the American Future Fund.
“Menczer got the idea for the Truthy website after hearing researchers from Wellesley College speak earlier this year on their research analyzing a well-known Twitter bomb campaign conducted by the conservative group American Future Fund (AFF) against Martha Coakley, a democrat who lost the Massachusetts senatorial seat formerly held by the late Edward Kennedy,” the press release said. “Republican challenger Scott Brown won the seat after AFF set up nine Twitter accounts in early morning hours prior to the election and then sent out 929 tweets in two hours before Twitter realized the information was spam. By then the messages had reached 60,000 people.”
The release also said that Truthy was launched to “uncover deceptive tactics and misinformation” leading up to the 2010 midterms.
Doug Wasitis said he was “concerned about efforts to rescind the remaining funds” for Truthy due to the backlash.
“In reading through the materials, I found the passage below in the original press release from 2010….sort of implying the AFF used dirty campaign practices in the MA Senate race….,” Wasitis wrote on Oct. 22. “I agree the name ‘Truthy’ doesn't help.”