Where Did That Meme Come From?

When you think of a meme, you probably envision a hilarious YouTube video and its many hundreds of spoofs, spin-offs and pop-culture mentions. However, memes are really just any idea, cultural phenomenon or symbol that is transmitted and re-transmitted through imitation. And political memes – whether a catchy phrase like “birther” or a complex idea like a 9/11 conspiracy theory – are usually not the funny sort. A new website has made it its mission to uncover the source of political memes on Twitter to determine whether they are thinly veiled PR or smear campaigns, or actual spontaneous comments by real people.

Truthy uses a complex technical package to determine where and how a Twitter meme starts and spreads. It mines freely available Twitter data – analyzing thousands of tweets per hour – and groups this data into categories or trends, eventually pinpointing individual memes. These memes are formed around hashtags, URLs and @ mentions on Twitter. Truthy not only relies on software to sort through Twitter memes, but also on crowdsourcing – individuals are encouraged to flag memes they think are suspicious.

The site’s main goal is to distinguish between the organically-formed memes that crop up regularly on the net, and those that are started by a political PR firm or campaign.

They focus on memes that are new, have undergone a major increase in volume, or ones that take up a significant portion of all tweets in order to isolate those memes that likely have the most impact. These memes are then analyzed using a variety of techniques to determine whether they are legitimate or the spawn of an insidious political campaign.

The image below is the Truthy visualization for the hashtag #tcot. Blue lines indicate retweets while orange represents mentions. This is the most Truthy (or most suspicious) meme on Truthy so far, with 24 users flagging it.

There are no conclusions yet as to whether this meme – or others examined on the Truthy website – was actually created by less-than-savory PR folks. The research is still in its early stages. However, Techeye reports that Truthy was set up in direct response to a fake political meme: in the days and hours before the Massachusetts senatorial vote the conservative group American Future Fund against Martha Coakley set up nine Twitter accounts and blasted almost 1,000 smear tweets against Coakley, reaching 60,000 users before Twitter noticed the spam and shut down the accounts.

Digging deeper into Twitter memes will provide some very valuable information about how politicians and their campaigns are utilizing the social web. Politicians must be kept accountable, which can be difficult online. However, by monitoring political memes on Twitter, Truthy is forcing some transparency and calling out those politicians, pundits, campaigners or activists who would fake a meme to get some press.

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