It's Election Day and people across the U.S. are making their way to the polls to cast their hopefully well-informed ballots. If you're one of the many looking for some last minute information on your candidates this morning, beware your source, as much of those grassroots-looking Tweets may actually just be astroturf.
According to the Truthy project, a research effort from Indiana University, much of what you're seeing on Twitter these days consists of "political smear campaigns, astroturfing, and other social pollution."
The project uses a combination of data-mining, network analysis and crowdsourcing to ferret out what it calls "truthy memes". (And yes, "truthy" comes from "Truthiness" a la comedian Stephen Colbert.) These memes are bits of repeatable information that rely on "deceptive tactics to represent misinformation as fact".
The Truthy project analyzes where the memes originate from, how they're spread and how those users are connected to verify their validity. The algorithm also examines "the time of posts, the number of users involved, broadcaster history, the unique topology of the diffusion network, and so on". When a meme is determined suspect, users on the site can help to provide crowdsourced annotations as to what the particular meme is attempting to say.
Bruno Gonçalves, a research associate on the project, told MIT's Technology Review that the basic hope behind these astroturfed memes is to convince viewers of the Tweets' validity by offering context.
"If you hear the same message from many different sources that you think are independent who are saying the same thing, you're much more likely to believe it," he said.
One example of the sorts of accounts the Truthy project is looking to expose is that of @peacekaren_25. The description of this particular account points out a number of suspicious points:
The account @PeaceKaren_25 does not disclose information about the identity of its owner. It has generated a very large number of tweets (over 10,000 in four months). Almost all of these tweets support several Republican candidates, especially House GOP leader John Boehner, whose account @GOPLeader is very frequently retweeted or mentioned. @PeaceKaren_25's tweets also frequently include links to various websites supporting the same candidates, especially John Boehner's website, gopleader.gov, as well as his Facebook page, blogs, gop.gov, etc.
Before you take off one way or another, know that the site claims it is a non-partisan research group, so there's likely fodder there for both sides of the fence. The best way to get started is to take a look at the gallery, which offers a bunch of "truthy memes" with crowdsourced explanations of what you're seeing.