In the October 18th edition of The Washington Post is an opinion column from Ajit Pai, a Commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In it he criticizes a National Science Foundation funded research program called “Truthy.” The Post‘s online headline – “the government wants to study ‘social pollution’ on Twitter” captures the challenges of Pai’s perspective. In his inapt description of the situation – the government is funding the research, but university researchers are doing the work – Pai presents a wee bit of straw in his argument. It’s compounded by his comparison with a proposed FCC study – which would have been conducted by agency personnel, and would pose a government intrusion into activities that typically enjoy First Amendment protections.
But his concerns over a potential application of the work – monitoring the dissemination of political speech – are not trivial. If the government were monitoring Twitter in the way Pai thinks they will with the results of this research, then there are First Amendment concerns. But that amendment concerns government actions. The actions of private parties do not have such coverage (a point often forgotten in many of the clashes over the stupid stuff people say that can get them disciplined by their employers).
And there can be value in understanding how movements use social media, and how ideas spread through social media. Would Pai be as upset with this kind of research (which I’m sure predates this particular research grant) if it was concerned with public perceptions of how to avoid Ebola (or the flu)? I don’t know, but I think if there is any push back to his arguments, that’s the kind of point likely to come up.
Pai’s concerns represent a different kind of challenge to political science research than the kind Senator Coburn often advanced – that there are already enough sources of political information (namely news organizations) so there is no need for funding political science research. An inference from his column is that research into political activity cannot take place because it would infringe on peoples’ freedoms. (It reminds me of one Representative’s complaints about an National Institutes of Health grant that surprised Director Collins.)
The partisan fashion in which Pai expresses his concerns does not dismiss their validity. I could certainly see complaints from partisans of different stripes arising if Truthy researchers had mentioned monitoring different political groups. Are there areas of political science research that should be restricted from government funding? If such areas were restricted, would private sources (with their own political motivations) exacerbate the problem? I don’t know, but I think those questions are worth discussing. And perhaps funding some research in order to explore them further.