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A major disinformation research team's future is uncertain after political attacks

Alex Stamos, the former director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, during congressional testimony in 2014. The research team Stamos led came under fire from Republicans, who alleged that their research amounted to censorship.
Win McNamee
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Alex Stamos, the former director of the Stanford Internet Observatory, during congressional testimony in 2014. The research team Stamos led came under fire from Republicans, who alleged that their research amounted to censorship.

The Stanford Internet Observatory, a prominent research group at Stanford University studying how social media platforms are abused, has lost its top leadership and faces an uncertain future amid a sustained right-wing campaign targeting the study of online falsehoods.

The SIO's founding director, Alex Stamos, left his position in November. In recent weeks, the university did not renew the contract of Renée DiResta, the group's research manager, along with other staffers. Remaining staff have been told to look for other jobs, according to the tech newsletter Platformer, which first reported the news.

The SIO was founded five years ago as a cross-disciplinary program examining some of the thorniest issues raised by the proliferation of the internet, including the way social networks such as Instagram are used for child exploitation and the spread of false and misleading information about elections and vaccines.

But in the past year, the work of researchers at SIO and other institutions studying viral falsehoods and their impact on democracy have become the focus of scrutiny by Republicans in the courts and in Congress, who allege their work amounts to censorship.

The Election Integrity Partnership, a joint project SIO ran with the University of Washington to track false and misleading information about the 2020 and 2022 elections, became the focus of conspiracy theories that it was a front for the government to suppress speech it didn't like. (The EIP's website was updated in recent weeks to say it "will not be working on the 2024 or future elections.")

As a result, researchers at Stanford, UW and other institutions have been hit with lawsuits, flooded with subpoenas and document requests, and subjected to online harassment and attacks.

That's added up to millions of dollars in legal fees and significant amounts of time responding to congressional inquiries and lawsuits, which researchers say has been a distraction from their core work. The Washington Post reported on Friday that SIO has struggled to raise money to continue funding its work in an increasingly hostile climate.

In response to the news of SIO's pullback, Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, who has spearheaded efforts to discredit researchers through his chairmanship of the House Judiciary Committee, posted on X on Friday: "Free speech wins again!" and accused SIO of being part of "the censorship regime."

Stanford University pushed back against the idea that SIO is being dismantled.

"The important work of SIO continues under new leadership, including its critical work on child safety and other online harms, its publication of the Journal of Online Trust and Safety, the Trust and Safety Research Conference, and the Trust and Safety Teaching Consortium," university spokesperson Dee Mostofi said in a statement. "Stanford remains deeply concerned about efforts, including lawsuits and congressional investigations, that chill freedom of inquiry and undermine legitimate and much needed academic research – both at Stanford and across academia."

SIO staff, including Stamos and DiResta, have been targeted by Jordan's Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, which alleges that government agencies, tech companies and academics have colluded to unconstitutionally shut down conservative speech — a claim the accused parties deny. In addition, Stamos and DiResta are named in an ongoing private lawsuit brought by America First Legal, an organization run by former Trump adviser Stephen Miller.

The SIO and other academic research groups were also initially named in a lawsuit brought against the Biden administration by the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana making similar claims of collusion. The researchers have since been dropped from that case, which the Supreme Court is expected to rule on in the coming weeks.

"The politically motivated attacks against our research on elections and vaccines have no merit, and the attempts by partisan House committee chairs to suppress First Amendment-protected research are a quintessential example of the weaponization of government," Stamos and DiResta said in a statement first given to Platformer.

"We are thankful to Stanford for defending our work, including in front of the US Supreme Court, and are confident that the judicial system will eventually act to protect our speech and the speech of other academics," they wrote. "We hope that Stanford is willing to support the remainder of the SIO team and serve as a safe home for future research into how the internet is used to cause harm against individuals and our democracy."

Copyright 2024 NPR

Shannon Bond is a business correspondent at NPR, covering technology and how Silicon Valley's biggest companies are transforming how we live, work and communicate.
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