Frequently Asked Questions
- What is the Observatory on Social Media?
- What is a meme?
- What is a diffusion network?
- What is the source of the data? Are there biases?
- Has this project been reviewed by an ethics board?
- Are allegations of political bias true?
- How has this website changed over time?
What is the Observatory on Social Media?
The Observatory on Social Media is a set of tools resulting from a broad research project that seeks to study how memes spread online. Our first application was the study of astroturfing: memes promoted by social bots to create the appearance of a grassroots movement. Our first demo to visualze the spread of memes on Twitter was nicknamed Truthy. The word, suggested by a graduate student, comes from a term popularized by Stephen Colbert, truthiness, which describes claims that feel like they ought to be true, but aren't necessarily.
What is a meme?
A meme is an idea, piece of information, or behavior that is passed from one person to another by imitation. This is a broader notion than the so-called internet memes consisting of pictures with superimposed text. In our observatory tools, a meme can be a Twitter #hashtag or, coming soon, a @username.
What is a diffusion network?
A diffusion network is the graph obtained by connecting user nodes with edges that represent the spread of a meme. Edges can represent retweets (in blue) or mentions (in orange).
What is the source of the data? Are there biases?
We collect a 10% sample of public tweets from Twitter via their Streaming API. We have been collecting this data since September, 2010 and continue to analyze it for research purposes. We are grateful to Twitter for granting our lab access. An important caveat is that possible sampling biases are unknown, as the messages are sampled by Twitter. Assuming that tweets are randomly sampled, as asserted by Twitter, the collection does not automatically translate into a representative sample of the underlying population of Twitter users, or of the topics discussed. This is because the distribution of activity is highly skewed across users and topics and, as a result, active users and popular topics are better represented in the sample. Additional sampling biases may also evolve over time due to changes in the platform.
Has this project been reviewed by an ethics board?
Yes. Research based on analysis of public social media data, carried out as part of this project, has been approved by Indiana University's Institutional Review Board.
Are allegations of political bias true?
No. Visualizations displayed on the site reflect the queries of the users without intervention by the researchers. This research project is not and never was a political watchdog, nor a database to be used by the federal government to monitor the activities of those who oppose its policies, nor a government probe of social media, nor an attempt to suppress free speech or limit political speech or develop standards for online political speech, nor a way to define misinformation editorially or subjectively, nor a partisan political effort, nor a system targeting political messages and commentary connected to conservative groups, nor a mechanism to terminate any social media accounts, nor a database tracking hate speech. Any such allegations are false. They were fabricated and spread by certain media outlets and politicians prior to the 2014 mid-term elections. For further information please read this letter, this statement, these articles in CJR and Science, this interview, these slides, and our post The Truth About Truthy.
How has this website changed over time?
This website was originally designed to showcase demos associated with our project and we had a separate research project website. We updated this site from time to time as we added new demos and removed old ones that were no longer working. Controversy following some misrepresentation about the project in 2014 generated a lot of scrutiny of this website, and the distiction between the research project and the demo website created some confusion. Therefore we redesigned this website to provide a single source of information about the research project as well as demos and tools.