A U.S. House committee is looking into an Indiana University study that some media outlets have alleged is an attempt to limit free speech on social media.
Indiana University officials say those reports are a gross mischaracterization of the study’s goals.
In a statement released Tuesday, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said the National Science Foundation’s $1 million grant that is funding the IU project called Truthy is “worse than a simple misuse of public funds.”
“The NSF is out of touch and out of control,” Smith said. “The Science Committee is investigating how this grant came to be awarded taxpayer dollars. The NSF must be held accountable for its funding decisions.”
IU associate informatics professor Johan Bollen, one of Truthy‘s main researchers, says the project does not aim to limit free speech. It takes tweets or public posts on other social media sites and runs those through algorithms to detect general trends about how information and ideas are spread and transformed as they are shared across online networks.
“We wouldn’t have gotten approval for the grant if we were actually using the results of that research to interact with people because then you are performing an experiment, you’re interfering with people’s activities online,” Bollen says. “That’s simply not allowed.”
The question of whether the IU project aimed to limit political speech originated on the conservative website the Washington Free Beacon.
Bollen says some of the data that comes through the team’s algorithms is political speech, but it is treated no differently than other information.
Bollen notes that NSF grants are not contingent upon performance. He says the application process is rigorous and must meet high standards that indicate the work has substantial scientific value.
“It’s not really some kind of contractual commitment for you to perform services for the federal government in exchange for funding,” Bollen says.
The results of the Truthy project, including academic papers and interactive analytical tools are publicly available online.