Thursday, September 4, 2014

Hide N Seek

My niece and my nephew love playing Hide and Seek – with each other and with other kids. Adults are able to join in – and when lots of people are around it can be a great way to burn off some youthful energy. When I was that age I never much enjoyed the game – fearful that I’d either never be found or could never find the person hiding. Perhaps that’s why I don’t like surprises. I prefer games where there’s a lot of certainty about the rules and what’s supposed to happen. With a clear structure, it’s easier to figure out what’s permissible and what isn’t. Would that the world of politics were that clear.

Daniel Patrick Moynihan popularized the quote: “you’re entitled to your own opinion, but you’re not entitled to you own facts.” At a time that American politics are more polarized than ever, the fight for determining what is the baseline truth is more important than ever. I, along with many others, have addressed this dichotomy several times in various blogs. What’s different? Now, according to The Week the United States Government is spending $1 million to be the arbiter of what’s truthful:

Called "Truthy" after a running gag on Comedy Central's The Colbert Report, the project is centered at Indiana University, where the Computer & Information Science & Engineering Department has accepted a federal grant of nearly $1 million for the effort.  Truthy has a wider scope than just fact-checking, though. The grant's abstract states that the database will provide analysis of "meme diffusion in large-scale social media by collecting and analyzing massive streams of public micro-blogging data," which might be useful for public relations firms, media organizations, and perhaps even individual consumers. However, what Indiana University's researchers claim as Truthy's public benefit raised a few eyebrows. “We will create a web service open to the public for monitoring trends, bursts, and suspicious memes," the abstract concludes. “This service could mitigate the diffusion of false and misleading ideas, detect hate speech and subversive propaganda, and assist in the preservation of open debate.”

The White House Press Corps tends to regurgitate press releases and administration talking points with very little pushback, context or even acknowledgement that they are being spoon fed the news. Now the Administration itself is going to be the arbiter of what’s misleading? The government itself is going to determine what is propaganda and what isn’t? The same Administration that has literally criminalized reporters for doing their job is going to “assist in the preservation of open debate?” Who will be making that determination? A political appointee? Somebody who has to be approved by Congress? Or perhaps a life-long bureaucrat like Lois Lerner? Even though this news report comes from the esteemed publication The Week, I nonetheless checked through to make sure that this wasn’t an Onion article – the absurdity and gall is just too mind boggling.

The Obama Administration has rightly complained and bemoaned its frustration that they haven’t been able to accomplish much legislatively because there’s a minority in the House of Representatives that has thwarted them for six years. As I’ve written before: too bad, that’s the U.S. system…either live with it or figure out a way to work around it or adjust your expectations. One of the ways the Republicans have been able to stymie the Administration is its ability to control the narrative and the ‘facts’ whereas Team Obama seems incapable of getting their perspective out. The solution to that problem is a communications issue – it is not empowering the government itself to decide what the truth is.

The news came out days before a long holiday weekend at the end of the summer. The major media haven’t picked it up. In a $3.77 trillion expense budget, $1 million is a miniscule percentage. There are numerous for-profit, third-party companies that have made their business determining who’s pants-are-on-fire. As a fierce capitalist I know that these private companies would beat out any government designed and funded program. As a pragmatist and realist, I know that when the government gets into a sector – it makes the rules and so the game is rigged and free enterprise can’t equally compete. If the “Truthy” project moves from trial to full implementation, we’ll all be playing the Hide N Seek game…about facts…and America will be much worse for it.

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