GOP Targets Researchers Studying Disinformation Ahead of 2024 Election

Representative Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) chairs a hearing of the House Select Committee on Weaponization of the Federal Government, in Washington, May 18, 2023. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

Representative Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) chairs a hearing of the House Select Committee on Weaponization of the Federal Government, in Washington, May 18, 2023. (Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times)

On Capitol Hill and in the courts, Republican lawmakers and activists are mounting a sweeping legal campaign against universities, think tanks and private companies that study the spread of misinformation, accusing them of colluding with the government to suppress conservative speech. on line.

The effort has cluttered its targets with sweeping requests for information and, in some cases, subpoenas – demanding notes, emails and other information related to social media companies and the government dating back to 2015 Complying has consumed time and resources and has already affected the groups’ ability to research and raise funds, according to several people involved.

They and others have warned that the campaign is undermining the fight against misinformation in American society as the problem is, by most accounts, on the rise – and another presidential election draws near. Many of those behind the Republican effort had also joined former President Donald Trump in falsely challenging the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.

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“I think this is obviously a cynical – and I would say extremely partisan – attempt to chill research,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, an organization that works to protect freedom of expression and the press.

The House Judiciary Committee, which in January moved to majority Republican control, has sent dozens of letters and subpoenas to researchers — only some of which have been made public. He threatened legal action against those who did not respond quickly or completely enough.

A conservative advocacy group led by former Trump adviser Stephen Miller filed a class action lawsuit in US District Court in Louisiana last month that echoes many of the committee’s accusations and focuses on some of the same defendants. .

Targets include Stanford, Clemson and New York universities and the University of Washington; the Atlantic Council, the German Marshall Fund, and the National Conference on Citizenship, all nonpartisan, nongovernmental organizations in Washington; the Wikimedia Foundation in San Francisco; and Graphika, a company that researches misinformation online.

In a related area of ​​inquiry, the committee also issued a subpoena to the World Federation of Advertisers, a trade association, and the Global Alliance for Responsible Media it created. Republican leaders on the committee accused the groups of violating antitrust laws by conspiring to cut ad revenue from content searchers and tech companies deemed harmful.

Committee chairman Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a close Trump ally, accused the organizations of “censoring disadvantaged speech” involving issues that have galvanized the Republican Party: policies around the COVID-19 pandemic. 19 and the integrity of the American political system, including the outcome of the 2020 elections.

Much of the misinformation surrounding these two issues comes from the right. Many Republicans are convinced that researchers studying misinformation have pressured social media platforms to discriminate against conservative voices.

These complaints were fueled by Twitter’s decision, under its new owner, Elon Musk, to release certain internal communications between government officials and Twitter employees. The communications show government officials urging Twitter to take action against accounts spreading misinformation, but stopping short of ordering them to do so, as some critics have claimed.

Patrick L. Warren, an associate professor at Clemson University, said researchers at the school provided materials to the committee and gave some staff members a brief presentation. “I think most of that was spurred on by our appearance in the Twitter files, which left people with a pretty distorted idea of ​​our mission and our work,” he said.

Last year, Republican attorneys general in Missouri and Louisiana sued the Biden administration in U.S. District Court in Louisiana, arguing that government officials effectively cajoled or coerced Twitter, Facebook and other media platforms. by threatening to change the law. The judge, Terry A. Doughty, denied a defense motion to dismiss the trial in March.

The current campaign does not focus on government officials but rather on individuals working for universities or non-governmental organizations. They have their own First Amendment free speech guarantees, including their interactions with social media companies.

The group behind the class action, America First Legal, named as defendants two Stanford Internet Observatory researchers, Alex Stamos and Renée DiResta; a professor at the University of Washington, Kate Starbird; a Graphika executive, Camille François; and Senior Director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, Graham Brookie.

If the lawsuit continues, they could face a trial and possibly civil damages if the charges are confirmed.

Miller, president of America First Legal, did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement last month, he said the lawsuit “strikes at the heart of the censorship-industry complex.”

The researchers, who the House committee asked to submit emails and other documents, are also charged in the lawsuit brought by the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana. The plaintiffs include Jill Hines, director of Health Freedom Louisiana, an organization accused of misinformation, and Jim Hoft, the founder of Gateway Pundit, a right-wing news site. Louisiana’s Western District Court has become, under Doughty, a prime venue for legal challenges against the Biden administration.

The attacks use “the same argument that starts with false premises,” said Jeff Hancock, founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab, which is not a party to any of the lawsuits. “We see it in the media, in congressional committees, and in lawsuits, and it’s the same basic argument, with a false premise that the government gives some direction to the research we do.”

The House Judiciary Committee focused much of its interrogations on two collaborative projects. One was the Election Integrity Partnership, which Stanford and the University of Washington formed ahead of the 2020 election to identify attempts “to suppress voting, reduce turnout, confuse voters, or delegitimize election results.” without evidence”. The other, also hosted by Stanford, was called the Virality Project and focused on spreading misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.

Both subjects have become political lightning rods, exposing researchers to partisan attacks online that have at times become disturbingly personal.

In the case of the Stanford Internet Observatory, requests for information — including all emails — even extended to students who volunteered to work as interns for the Election Integrity Partnership.

A central premise of the committee’s investigation — and other complaints about censorship — is that researchers or government officials had the power or ability to shut down social media accounts. They didn’t, according to former employees of Twitter and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, who said the decision to punish users who break the platform’s rules is up to the companies alone.

No evidence has emerged that government officials have compelled companies to take action against accounts, even when groups have reported problematic content.

“We not only have the academic freedom as researchers to conduct this research, but also the freedom of speech to tell Twitter or any other company to look at tweets that we believe violate the rules,” Hancock said. .

Universities and research organizations have sought to comply with the committee’s demands, although collecting years of emails has been a tedious task complicated by privacy concerns. They face mounting legal costs and questions from administrators and donors about the risks raised by studying disinformation. Online attacks have also taken a toll on morale and, in some cases, frightened students.

In May, Jordan threatened Stanford with unspecified legal action for failing to comply with a previously issued subpoena, even though the university’s lawyers negotiated with committee lawyers on how to protect student privacy. . (Several of the students who volunteered are identified in the America First Legal lawsuit.)

The committee declined to discuss details of the investigation, including the number of requests or subpoenas it filed in total. He also did not reveal how he expects the investigation to proceed – whether he would prepare a final report or make criminal referrals and, if so, when. In his statements, however, he seems to have already reached a general conclusion.

“Twitter files and information from private litigation show how the federal government has worked with social media companies and other entities to silence disadvantaged speech online,” spokesperson Russell Dye said in a statement. a statement. “The committee is working hard to get to the bottom of this censorship to protect First Amendment rights for all Americans.”

Partisan controversy has an effect not only on researchers but also on social media giants.

Twitter, under Musk, was keen to lift restrictions and restore accounts that had been suspended, including that of the Gateway Pundit. YouTube recently announced that it will no longer ban videos that make “false claims that fraud, error, or widespread mischief occurred in the 2020 U.S. presidential election and other years.”

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