- - Thursday, August 28, 2014

To rescue the nation from “political misinformation” and “hate speech,” the U.S. government is spending nearly a million dollars to look into how animated cat images spread across the Internet do harm. At best, it’s a waste of time. At worst, it’s a tool to suppress free speech.

The scheme, known as “Truthy,” is run out of Indiana University with $919,917 from the National Science Foundation. The project takes its name from “truthiness,” a term coined by Stephen Colbert, the Comedy Central television host who mocks Republicans by pretending to be a dim-witted conservative pundit.

The project says its goal is to “detect political smears, ‘astroturfing’, misinformation and other social pollution” on Twitter and to create a public Web service to expose tweets deemed a threat to open debate. The researchers insist that their system is content neutral and does not define misinformation or hate speech.

That’s similar to the Fairness Doctrine, imposed by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949. It was used to keep conservatives off talk radio until it was repealed in the late 1980s.

The protests of innocence are less credible considering the No. 1 Twitter hashtag being monitored is the one for the “Top Conservatives On Twitter.” Truthy scans every 140-character message and catalogs whether it is “positive” or “negative” and whether it falls as left or right on the political spectrum. A similar feature is used to see who’s talking the most about Barack Obama, and what they’re tweeting.

Though this may be harmless research into the talk of twits just now, the potential for abuse is obvious. The data are public, so enterprising leftists could organize campaigns to have critics of the president ejected from social media websites for “hate speech” just as those who question the global warming hoax have been frozen out of the debate on the social media website Reddit.

After The Washington Free Beacon first revealed the federal involvement, Indiana University’s Center for Complex Networks and Systems Research went on the defensive, insisting that Truthy will not be used “by the federal government to monitor the activities of those who oppose its policies.”

Even if the government resists taking advantage of the service, which is expected to be fully functional next year, Truthy is an inappropriate use of public money because of its potential to chill debate.

Trying to silence tweets that some people consider unpopular, subversive or even offensive, does not improve the search for the truth. It silences minority views. The First Amendment was not adopted to guarantee appropriate, positive or even responsible speech. The First Amendment guarantees free speech. This is difficult for some people to understand.