Chicken Little, the Feds, and "Misleading Ideas"

This week marks the first year of The Leader's Notebook. That means I've posted 52 blogs on a variety of topics from current events to leadership to management to religion. A fraternity (or sorority) of 300-500 regular readers has developed and I am honored that they read so consistently.

Thank you to all those readers. I hope you will stay with me for year number two and PLEASE tell you friends in the real world and in twitter-sphere about The Leader's Notebook.

I thought I would write this anniversary blog on some jolly idea that would brighten every reader's day. Then I read a press release that rocked my day. Hoping it was not correct, or, more likely, that I had simply misunderstood its implications, I was reluctant to play Chicken Little without confirmation and clarification.

Today's Notebook is a plea really, more than a commentary. I am asking someone to tell me that what I'm about to write is not really happening. I'm pleading for exactly that.

A relatively quiet news item caught my eye and after reading it I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Literally. The further I read the more concerned I became. I have not heard one main line newscaster or pundit sound an alarm. Perhaps they are and I'm just not hearing them. Maybe there are sober-minded folks in the media and in politics who are screaming bloody murder and I'm just not in the right place at the right time to hear them. I certainly hope so.

However, not hearing such voices has made me wonder about myself. When one finds oneself shocked and frightened by a news item buried on page 16, one doubts oneself. Maybe I am paranoid. Maybe I'm just seeing ghosts. Maybe I'm just jittery and blowing something up out of proportion because of my abiding mistrust of big government. Maybe. But I don't think so.

Here it is. The federal government has announced that it is spending $1M to fund an online database that will monitor "what it considers suspicious memes and false and misleading ideas." Scared yet? Try this. The government furthermore announced this will "have a major focus on political activity online." Gad zooks!!! (Read the FoxNews Insider article here.)

Various news outlets, including but not exclusively Fox News, are carrying the story but so far not many seem to be crying out that the sky is falling. Indiana University has accepted this $919,000+ grant to create a "Truthy" database to "detect political smears" and other "false ideas." This is not entirely new. Indiana University has been conducting its own "Truthy" program for several years. It's just that now the federal government will be funding it to a sweet million dollar tune. If a private university wishes to spend its money this way, that is one thing. I do not understand the state of Indiana funding this, but that is Indiana's concern. What should not, 100% NOT, be happening is funding by the federal government.

The program's director, one Filippo Menczer, is hardly the paragon of objectivity. His outspoken support of President Barack Obama's Organizing for Action and Moveon.org seems other than encouraging toward that hope. Strange that this program gets funding from the government with such well-documented leanings.

The National Science Foundation (a government agency) is funding this grant, the ostensible justification of which is that it will monitor hate speech. As opposed to hate speech as I am, and I am, I am even more opposed to the federal government deciding what Twitter accounts are spreading "false and misleading ideas." If this is true, and it appears to be, this is a horrible program. Worse, it’s a dangerous one. This is not the business of government. I do not want to spread false and misleading ideas. I do not want to retweet "suspicious memes.” On the other hand, I do not want Big Brother checking on my Twitter account to see if I'm saying anything it considers a "false idea."

What is hate speech? If I denounce The Affordable Care Act as bad policy and bad politics, is that hate speech? What is a false idea anyway? That God is real? That Ronald Reagan was a great president? That labor unions are dinosaurs that have outlived their purpose? That abortion is a sin? That any sin is a sin? All of the above? Who decides these things? That's what I want to know. Who decides what is a "misleading idea?" Oh, I know. Let's let the IRS decide. Perhaps Lois Lerner could come out of retirement, join the IU team and help run the whole Twitter listening program. Now are you scared?

Maybe I have the story wrong. Maybe the very word, "Truthy," did not originate with Stephen Colbert. Maybe he did not coin the phrase and apply it largely as a slam on George W. Bush. The government would never copy something off a politically slanted comedy show. That would not be comedy. That's tragedy. Maybe this whole story is just some paranoid fiction propagated by some Chicken Little somewhere. I hope it's all made up by whacky folks who are just mad at the federal government. Surely the American government would never ever consider such an Orwellian nightmare as this. Or maybe the story itself is right but I have some element of it wrong. I hope so. Maybe it does not mean what it seems to mean. Maybe something. Maybe anything. Surely I'm wrong here. I WANT to be wrong. If I am right, though, somebody, everybody who cares about liberty and the country America used to be aught to be screaming bloody murder. The government has no business spending one dollar let alone a million to station thought police and meme cops on Twitter.

This very Leader's Notebook, this exact blog might well be seen by the Twitter cops as a "false idea." And you. What about you? You're reading it. If or when this terrifying million dollar watch-dog program comes into being, who in Washington may want to know which "false ideas" are yours.

I am certainly open to correction on this. I pray for correction. What I hope is that someone in responsible leadership will explain calmly that I misread the story; that no such million dollar grant has been awarded; that Indiana University is not involved in this nastiness; that the government certainly is NOT reading our Twitter postings to know which of us is spouting "false ideas." Somebody tell me this is not true. Please. I will happily write a blog rejoicing in the fact that my concerns were groundless.

Until then, I see this story of the "Truthy" grant to Indiana University as one of the most sobering, down-right frightening stories I've read in a long time. Frankly it scares the absolute daylights out of me.

This was not the blog I wanted to write on the first anniversary of The Leader's Notebook. It's not a blog I thought would ever need writing in the United States. Nobody likes the Chicken Little label. I surely don't. Somebody tell me I'm wrong. That's all I ask. Then we can all have a good laugh at my expense. I promise I will laugh the loudest.

Read the FoxNews Insider article - "Feds Creating Online Tracker to Search for ‘Hate Speech’ & ‘Misinformation’" here. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

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