Indiana U's Million-Dollar Meme Project

by Alexandra Bruschi

Researchers at Indiana University want to read your mind — at least when it comes to figuring out why you look at some viral Web content and not others. And thanks to the National Science Foundation, they are. A team of researchers from Indiana University received a $1 million grant to decipher Internet memes back in 2011. Since then, Filippo Menczer and his research team have been hard at work creating Truthy, a system that investigates what makes certain memes take off, while leaving others to gather dust in the corner of the Internet.

To analyze the life cycle of memes, the Truthy system analyzes thousands of tweets each hour in an attempt to identify emerging patterns, or what the researchers call “bursts of activity around memes of various flavors.

Menczer and his team also plan to use Truthy to root out memes with ulterior motives. To do this, Truthy's algorithms will detect "political smears" and "social pollution" by identifying the memes sneakily connected with high-profile congressional campaigns. In this way, the researchers hope Truthy will become a public service, helping social media users engage in thoughtful, informed political discussion and avoid hate speech and misleading propaganda.

Here are some memes that should be on Truthy’s radar, especially if it plans to focus on hashtags and keywords with political undertones . . .

Obama's Tan Suit

The tan suit that President Obama sported at a press conference Aug. 28 had the Internet buzzing with questions about the president's peculiar outfit choice. After a senior White House official reportedly told USA Today: ‘He loves that suit,’ we think Truthy might want to investigate. Is this what they call a "perfectly organic" viral image, or could it be a campaign tool from the Obama administration to draw attention to something other than the president's strategy in the Middle East? Tell us, Truthy!

Texts From Hillary

What's behind the epic photo that launched a viral Tumblr site that revamped Hillary's approval ratings? Truthy's fancy algorithms could help answer some important questions — like, why did this particular meme explode? What does her Internet fame mean for her 2016 presidential image? Why did Hillary reject Mark Zuckerberg's friend request?

Bill Clinton the Copy Cat

It looks like Bill was trying to ride on the coattails of his wife's Internet fame by parodying the iconic photo that launched the #textsfromhillary meme back in April. Maybe Truthy could tell us whether this was part of a playful husband-wife banter, or perhaps Bill's attempt to bring his wife's Internet fame back into the public eye as she plans for 2016? Hmm . . .

Regardless, somehow #textsfrombill doesn't have quite the same allure to it.

Hey Girl, It's Paul Ryan

According to, this meme was inspired by a blog post from conservative political consultant, Emily Zanotti who "envisioned him as a Ryan Gosling-esque figure for the Republican party." Based on its origins, Truthy might put this one under the "propaganda" category, though it's neither misleading nor slanderous, and so probably wouldn't be flagged by the database.

Images: BarackTanSuit/Twitter, BillClinton/Twitter, AmyLutz4/Twitter; TextsFromHillary/Tumblr, HeyGirlItsPaulRyan/Tumblr