$1M Grant Dedicated to Researching Memes
As an unusual research project reaches maturity, those whose tricks it exposes get angry
Why do some memes flourish while others falter? How are memes spread? Which ones can be said to be a product of authentic culture, and which might be suspiciously forced? And on that note, how can you make ‘fetch’ happen? A National Science Foundation grant of almost $1 million was awarded four years ago to an Indiana University project called Truthy, which hopes to use Twitter to study the science of Internet popularity as well as root out “political smears, astroturfing, misinformation, and other social pollution.” Now that the project is achieving maturity, it is receiving media attention as – ironically – it has been the target of a disinformation campaign by Fox News.
The project uses what it calls a “Gardenhose” of information, filtering out tweets that are unlikely to be about politics and then highlighting hashtags, usernames and web addresses in what remains. It analyzes thousands of Tweets per hour using a combination of detection and filtering, sentiment analysis, and visualization.
Apparently, political campaigners are getting more internet-savvy, and several candidates have used their clout and Citizens United-enabled campaign funds to push favorable material to the top of live search engine results and potentially even manufacture certain types of activity around them on social media. A list of interesting memes found thus far displays some common hashtags that unite political communities, such as #TCOT (top Conservatives on Twitter), more neutral but common terms in the political arena, such as #USA, and possible bot accounts and signs of astroturfing. All of these topics can be displayed graphically with webs indicating retweets and mentions that are color-coded to display when opposing communities face off.
As with practically anything involving federal government funding, American conservatives are vexed by the project and its considerable cost, as well as the way it seemingly targets conservatives with specific tags. Others, perhaps not realizing that it’s a project about the political media and not LOLCats, have criticized it simply for seeming frivolous.
However, even politics aside, “Cultural transmission is a very solid social science topic, and internet memes have the dual virtues of both potentially being novel (they might actually follow some traditional propagation pattern, might be something new, either way would be interesting to know) and being amenable to large-scale analysis because the internet is just so conveniently searchable and heavily cached in various places,” rebutted a user named fuzzyfuzzyfungus on Slashdot. “You don’t have to like the entire field; but this research project seems like a perfectly reasonable exercise.”