On Capitol Hill and in the courts, Republican lawmakers and activists are waging a sweeping legal campaign against universities, think tanks and private companies that study the spread of disinformation, alleging collusion with the government to suppress conservative speech online .
The effort has bombarded its targets with broad requests for information and, in some cases, subpoenas – demand notes, emails and other information relating to social media companies and the government since 2015. Compliance has consumed time and resources and has already affected the groups. ’ The ability to conduct research and raise money, according to several people involved.
He and others warned that the campaign undermined the fight against misinformation in American society at a time when the problem in most cases is on the rise — and when another presidential election is looming. Many point to former President Donald J. Joined Trump.
Jameel Jaffer, executive director of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, said, “I think this is clearly a cynical — and I would say wildly biased — attempt to silence the research.”
The House Judiciary Committee, which came under control of a Republican majority in January, has sent several letters and subpoenas to researchers – only some of which have been made public. It has threatened legal action against those who have not responded quickly or completely.
A conservative advocacy group led by Stephen Miller, a former adviser to Mr Trump, filed a class-action lawsuit last month in US District Court in Louisiana that echoes many of the committee’s allegations and focuses on some of the same defendants .
Targets include Stanford, Clemson and New York University 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 online misinformation.
In a related line of inquiry, the committee has also issued a summons to the World Federation of Advertisers, a trade association and the Global Alliance for Responsible Media created by it. Republican leaders on the committee have accused the groups of violating antitrust laws by conspiring to cut into advertising revenue for content researchers and tech companies found harmful.
The committee’s chairman, Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio, a close ally of Mr Trump, has accused the organizations of “censorship of hate speech” on issues that have propelled the Republican Party, including: policies around the Covid-19 pandemic and The integrity of the US political system, including the 2020 election results.
Much of the misinformation surrounding both issues has come from the right. Many Republicans are convinced that researchers conducting disinformation studies have pressured social media platforms to discriminate against conservative voices.
Those complaints have been fueled by Twitter’s decision under its new owner Elon Musk to release selected internal communications between government officials and Twitter employees. The communications show government officials urging Twitter to act against accounts spreading misinformation, but stop short of ordering them to do so, as some critics have claimed.
Patrick L. Warren, an associate professor at Clemson University, said the school’s researchers provided the documents to the committee and gave a brief presentation to some staff members. “I think much of it has been driven by our presence in the Twitter files, which has left people with a distorted sense of our mission and work,” he said.
Last year, Republican attorneys general from Missouri and Louisiana sued the Biden administration in US District Court in Louisiana, arguing that government officials effectively “seduced” Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms by threatening legislative changes. or forced Judge Terry A. Doughty denied the defense’s motion to dismiss the trial in March.
The focus of the current campaign is not on government officials but on private individuals working for universities or NGOs. They have their own First Amendment guarantees of free speech, including their interactions with social media companies.
The group behind the class action, America First Legal, named two researchers from the Stanford Internet Observatory, Alex Stamos and Renee DiResta, as defendants; Professor Kate Starbird at the University of Washington; Camille François, an executive from Grafika; and Graham Brookey, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Research Lab.
If the lawsuit proceeds, they could face a lawsuit and potentially civil damages if the allegations are proven true.
Mr. Miller, president of America First Legal, did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement last month, he said the lawsuit was “striking at the heart of the censorship-industrial complex.”
The researchers, who have been asked by the House committee to submit emails and other records, are also defendants in a lawsuit brought by the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana. The plaintiffs include Jill Hines, a director of Health Freedom Louisiana, an organization that has been accused of slander, and Jim Hoft, founder of Gateway Pundit, a right-wing news site. The court for the Western District of Louisiana, under Judge Doughty, has become a favorite spot for legal challenges against the Biden administration.
“The attacks use the same logic that starts with some false premises,” said Jeff Hancock, founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab, which is not in favor of any legal action. “We see it in the media, in congressional committees and in lawsuits, and it’s the same basic argument, with a false premise about the government giving any kind of direction to the research we do.”
The House Judiciary Committee has focused its inquiry on two collaborative projects. One was the Election Integrity Partnership, formed by Stanford and the University of Washington to identify efforts to “suppress voting, reduce participation, mislead voters, or invalidate election results without evidence” ahead of the 2020 election Was. The second, also conducted by Stanford, was called the Virality Project and focused on the spread of misinformation about COVID-19 vaccines.
Both topics have become political lightning rods, exposing researchers to online partisan attacks that at times turn intensely personal.
In the case of the Stanford Internet Observatory, requests for information—including all emails—have even reached students who have volunteered to serve as interns. 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 accounts on social media. They didn’t, according to former employees of Twitter and Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, who said the decision to punish users who violate platform rules was entirely up to the companies.
No evidence has emerged that government officials forced the companies to take action against the accounts, even if the groups flagged problematic content.
Mr Hancock said: “As researchers we not only have the academic freedom to conduct this research, but also the freedom to ask Twitter or any other company to look at Tweets that may be in breach of the rules. “
Universities and research organizations have sought to comply with the committee’s requests, although collecting years of emails complicated by privacy issues has been a time-consuming task. They face mounting legal costs and questions from directors and donors about the risks taken by studying misinformation. The online attacks have also taken a toll on morale and in some cases intimidated students.
In May, Mr. Jordan, the chairman of the committee, threatened Stanford with unspecified legal action for not complying with the subpoena issued earlier, even though university lawyers were negotiating with the committee’s lawyers about how to protect students’ privacy. To be kept safe (Several of the volunteer students have been identified in the America First legal suit.)
The committee declined to discuss details of the investigation, including how many requests or subpoenas it has filed in total. Nor has it disclosed how it expects to conduct the investigation – whether it will produce a final report or make criminal referrals and, if so, when. However, in its statements, it appears to have already reached a broad conclusion.
“The Twitter files and information from private litigation reveal how the federal government worked with social media companies and other entities,” Russell Dye, a spokesman, said in a statement. “The Committee is working hard to get to the bottom of this censorship to protect First Amendment rights for all Americans.”
The partisan controversy is taking a toll not only on researchers but also on social media giants.
Twitter, under Mr. Musk’s leadership, has made a point of restoring suspended accounts and lifting restrictions, including Gateway Pundit. youtube recently announced It will no longer ban videos that advanced “false claims that there was widespread fraud, errors, or irregularities in the 2020 and other past US presidential elections.”