What the Fate of the Stanford Internet Observatory Means for Disinformation Research | TechPolicy.Press

Dean Jackson / Jun 25, 2024
Dean Jackson is a fellow at Tech Policy Press.
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Stanford University. Shutterstock
Editor's note: Renée DiResta, who served as research manager at Stanford Internet Observatory until earlier this month, is on the board of Tech Policy Press. She played no role in the drafting or publication of this piece.
“Free speech wins again!” posted House Judiciary Committee Chairman, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), on June 14, taking credit for the news that the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO) might be “dismantled.” SIO conducted research on online harms and ran high-profile partnerships to monitor and respond to online rumors about US elections and the COVID-19 pandemic. This work made it a target of conservative activists and lawmakers, who attacked it through frivolous lawsuits and Congressional subpoenas.
Despite cheers from the right, SIO’s closure would make the internet worse. In addition to its work on elections and public health, in recent months, it published groundbreaking research into the presence of child sexual abuse material on social media and in AI data training. It was heartening to hear in a June 17 statement from Stanford that SIO’s work may yet continue in some fashion. But the architects of right-wing attacks on academic freedom still see this news cycle as a victory. Thus encouraged, they will likely redouble their efforts.
In the days since the blog Platformer first reported the changes at SIO, I spoke with professionals across the disinformation research field as well as funders who support such work to understand the impact of legal attacks like those against SIO. What I found is that many aspects of the current threat to disinformation research are misunderstood. The primary challenge has not come from politically squeamish funders; rather, the institutions housing researchers have failed to respond to a coordinated campaign against academic freedom. They should not capitulate to it. Instead, they should recognize this right-wing push for what it is and find the courage to resist. They should do it soon.

Propagandists are Striking Back

SIO’s fate follows years of attacks from conservative figures. After the 2020 election, MAGA Republican politicians were furious over platform content policies and bans against former President Trump after the January 6 insurrection. Smelling blood and feeling the need to appease the party’s activist base, they passed new laws in Texas and Florida limiting platforms’ discretion about what content they allow and how they distribute it. Then, in April 2022, conservative figures launched a barrage of false claims and misogynist attacks against the Disinformation Governance Board (a coordinating body established within the Department of Homeland Security) and Nina Jankowicz, who briefly directed the Board before the Biden administration dissolved it under pressure only weeks after its establishment.
Later that year, Elon Musk released the “Twitter Files” to a handful of Substack writers who spun a narrative of widespread government censorship targeting conservatives on social media. Many of their allegations did not hold water, but they were amplified in Congressional investigations led by House Judiciary Committee Chairman (and frequent fabulist) Rep. Jim Jordan.
Drawing on the same narratives advanced by Rep. Jordan and Musk, the states of Louisiana and Missouri filed a lawsuit, now known as Murthy v. Missouri, which if successful would halt federal efforts to coordinate with social media companies on a range of issues. The case is currently before the Supreme Court. In oral arguments, the Justices were skeptical that the parties had standing to sue the government based on an injury in fact.
These events damaged the field of disinformation research. Researchers have been hindered in their work by burdensome public records requests and summons to Congressional testimony. The attention brought negative publicity, leading to online threats against individuals. A September 2023 Washington Post article described the field as “buckling under GOP legal attacks.” In response, some researchers expressed defiance: “We’re not buckling and won’t be bullied,” wrote University of Washington professor Kate Starbird. But when asked about threats against her person and her work in a transcribed interview with the House Judiciary Committee, Starbird was blunt about the challenges she and others face:
I mean, quite frankly, I don't have kids. If I did, I would no longer be doing this work. I'm worried about my students. I know they're worried about doing this kind of work because of these kinds of threats and what they see that I'm going through. And, at the same time, I just think the work is so important, and I want to make sure it keeps going. So I don't -- I don't want to step off that stage. I don't want -- I think we have, like, special skills that can be really useful and helpful and help make our country stronger and -- but this is having a chilling effect, and it's not just me. Other researchers are experiencing the same thing.
There have been other consequences as well. The federal government and major social media companies ceased meeting about threats like cybersecurity, terrorist activity online, and foreign interference in US elections for several months. Meanwhile, the steady drumbeat of election denial within the Republican party reverberates across the country, leading to restrictive new voting laws and attacks on election administration which threaten the integrity of the 2024 election.
Conservative efforts to bury disinformation research are unlikely to cease soon. In fact, plans for expansion into new domains are already visible. At an April 2024 Heritage Foundation panel, former Trump State Department official and alt-right conspiracist Mike Benz said:
Media literacy just means if you read the wrong media sources, you are illiterate… I mean, it literally says if you watch, for example, this symposium on social media, you've committed effectively a mental thought crime. You are illiterate in the news sources you read. And you need to get your mind right. You need to be reeducated.
(It must be stressed that this is not what media literacy means.)
International expansion is on the table, too. Consider Liber-net, a venture associated with Matt Taibbi, Michael Shellenberger, and other Twitter Files writers. Cloaking itself in the language of digital rights, the initiative pledges to counter the “censorship industrial complex” and held a May 2024 convening of “digital rights dissenters” in Catalonia. Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s reprise of the Twitter Files gambit in Brazil also suggests that he is committed to making the world beyond the United States safe for disinformation.

Despite Blows, the Disinformation Research Field Shows Unexpected Resilience

Disinformation research feels more timely and relevant than ever. So why does it seem so vulnerable?
I’ve written previously about researchers’ fear that a combination of tech sector belt-tightening and philanthropy and government’s aversion to political controversy would jeopardize disinformation research. In more recent interviews, experts told me that philanthropic support has proven more resilient than expected. It is research institutions themselves that seem to be succumbing to pressure.
Those I spoke to gave several examples of government funders in the space who have been spooked by these political campaigns. In 2023, the National Institutes of Health halted a planned $150 million in grants for research on health communications; some allege political pressure played a role. Other government agencies may follow suit; conservatives in Congress have already targeted the National Science Foundation, for instance. The Congressionally appropriated National Endowment for Democracy (NED, which operates as an independent grantmaker) ceased funding to the Global Disinformation Index (GDI), a group which analyzes how digital advertising supports disinformation, even though the grant was earmarked for activities outside the United States. (Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-NY, Chair of the House Republican Conference and a denier of the 2020 election’s outcome, sits on NED’s Board. I was previously a staffer at the NED.) GDI has become a particular bogeyman for conservatives; it is named specifically in the National Defense Authorization Act, which requires Congressional notification if the Department of Defense were to contract with GDI regarding military recruitment ads. One of GDI’s co-founders has attracted so much coverage that he has his own tag on Breitbart.
Less is publicly known about philanthropic funding than grants from government agencies or the tech sector. Interview participants did not sense that foundations are backing away from disinformation as an issue area or its impact on key areas like election integrity. Their focus may partially shift from platform accountability and tech reform toward what might be considered next-best solutions, like depolarization initiatives and efforts to build civic infrastructure. But philanthropy is unlikely to back away from elections and democracy, issues which will require some grappling with disinformation and social media. It is even possible that a reduced focus on monitoring and content moderation will lead to an increase in more productive approaches.
If there is a problem, it seems to be on the other end of the pipeline: institutions are often risk-averse, and so are declining to raise funds for this work. Some academics have declined to publish completed work due to potential lawsuits after their universities said they might not be able to support scholars’ legal costs. It does not matter that only a dozen or so high-profile researchers have been named in lawsuits; the threat of litigation is often deterrence enough. For those who persist undeterred, philanthropic support remains available.
Legal harassment of the kind Stanford appears to have succumbed to has delivered mixed results in other cases. The Center for Countering Digital Hate has so far survived a lawsuit from Elon Musk’s X, whose claim that the organization cost him “tens of millions of dollars” in lost ad revenue may have served as free promotion for the nonprofit. (X has appealed the case’s dismissal.) Some other targets similarly feel that persecution has brought them publicity and opportunity, elevating their work. But others have suffered. In May 2024, Media Matters laid off about a dozen staff as a result of lawsuits by Elon Musk and Republican state attorneys general. SIO’s closure is another negative data point in this trendline.

Fear and Loathing in Stanford

Initially, the Washington Post reported that SIO “collapse[d] under pressure.” But “collapsed” is the wrong word, associated as it is with buildings which violently, suddenly give in to structural deficiencies. It would also have been wrong to say that right-wing activists toppled SIO. Rather, if SIO closes, the blame will lie primarily with Stanford. After absorbing millions of dollars in legal costs, Stanford apparently decided that SIO in its current form was not worth saving.
This might sound harsh. Stanford’s defenders might point out that the university has strong reasons to stand apart from partisan politics and a responsibility to Stanford’s fiscal health and sustainability. What they miss are the consequences of encouraging adversaries who will never be satiated. A statement from the university says that “SIO and Stanford remain 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.” But the sharks smell blood in the water. Future attacks are likely in the offing.
At the risk of stating the extremely obvious, one lesson here is that having a billionaire benefactor is really useful. Elon Musk, the world’s richest man, can personally bankroll legal hits on anyone who annoys him. He doesn’t even have to win the case; the legal fees alone can bury researchers with a tiny fraction of his resources. Musk is only one (incredibly wealthy) part of a larger right-wing network determined to take down institutes like SIO. Other parts of this network, like America First Legal—a dark money group founded by Trump advisor Stephen Miller—have murkier funding sources. Overall, the balance of financial resources seems to favor the right-wing offense over disinformation researchers.
Where is the benefactor with unlimited pockets willing to make sure institutions like SIO can resist well-funded lawfare? Conservative billionaires are willing to go to bat against disinformation researchers. In response, foundations have created a fund, administered by the Miami Foundation and advised by the Knight First Amendment Institute, to provide disinformation researchers with pro bono legal advice. Most researchers who contacted the fund sought advice for navigating legal threats; the smaller number singled out for actual lawsuits received pro bono representation.
Ultimately, though, institutions proved more susceptible to pressure than individual researchers. To cover this weak point, a bolder, larger, more public pledge may be needed. A single tax-deductible donation from one billionaire could, for instance, create a long-lasting endowment for the purpose of protecting academic freedom.
What is stopping this from happening? One possibility is the fear such a strong move would be viewed as partisan. This is not something that Elon Musk seems to worry much about. The rules are different for the right; their sense of grievance justifies partisan warfare. The rest of society stands apart in principled objectivity, watching the carnage as if it did not involve them.
Institutional leaders and those with resources need to better understand that this is a sustained threat, not a series of political scraps that will blow over with the next news cycle. Mapping and highlighting the coordinated nature of attacks on researchers could better illustrate this to them. Rather than thinking of themselves as avoiding unnecessary legal risk, university officials might instead see themselves as taking a principled stand against bullies. This should stiffen their spines.
Indeed, a little backbone can go a long way. When Ivy League presidents testified to Congress about campus protests, their mealy-mouthed responses cost them their jobs. Learning from their experience, public school superintendents took a more combative approach. They understood that if you give a mouse a cookie, it is going to ask for a glass of milk; if you give a member of Congress an easy media win, they’re going to seek another.
Perhaps more than anything, the field needs solidarity with those under threat. Most lawsuits have targeted a few high-profile figures. The heavy burdens of a few have deterred their many peers from speaking out. A vocal, collective response from those not under immediate threat would be a meaningful form of pushback. Disinformation researchers’ relative silence is a result of overcautious university administrators, not funding challenges or lack of determination. The institutions supporting these researchers had better wake up soon, or they may find themselves under even greater pressure from emboldened and empowered conservative critics.