On Capitol Hill and in the courts, Republican lawmakers and activists are launching a sweeping legal campaign against universities, think tanks and private companies that study the spread of disinformation, accusing them of colluding with the government to silence conservative speech online.
Since 2015, the effort has thwarted its targets with widespread information requests and, in some cases, subpoenas for notes, emails and other information related to social media companies and governments. Compliance has consumed time and resources, and has affected the ability of these groups to conduct research and raise funds, several of the people involved said.
They and others warn that the campaign is undermining American society’s fight against disinformation at a time when most people think the problem is on the rise — when another presidential election is looming. Many Republican supporters have also joined former President Donald J. Trump in falsely challenging the results of the 2020 presidential election.
“I think it’s clearly a cynical — I would say fanatical partisan — attempt to chill research,” said Jamil Jaffer, executive director of Columbia University’s Knight First Amendment Institute, which works to protect Freedom of speech and press.
The House Judiciary Committee, which has a Republican majority in January, has sent dozens of letters and subpoenas to the researchers, only some of which have been made public. It threatened legal action against those who did not respond quickly or adequately.
A conservative advocacy group led by Stephen Miller, a former adviser to Mr. Trump, filed a class-action lawsuit last month in U.S. District Court in Louisiana that echoes many of the committee’s allegations and focuses on some on the same defendant.
Targets included Stanford, Clemson, and New York Universities, as well as the University of Washington; the Atlantic Council, the German Marshall Fund, and the National Citizens Congress, all nonpartisan NGOs in Washington; the Wikimedia Foundation in San Francisco; Graphika, a research firm Companies that misinformation online.
In a related probe, the committee also issued subpoenas to the trade association World Federation of Advertisers and the Global Alliance for Responsible Media it created. The committee’s Republican leader accused the groups of violating antitrust laws by conspiring to cut off advertising revenue from researchers and tech companies with content found to be harmful.
The committee’s chairman, Ohio Representative Jim Jordan, a close ally of Mr Trump, has accused the groups of “censoring unpopular speech” on issues that have outraged Republicans: Policy around the Covid-19 pandemic and American politics regime, including the outcome of the 2020 general election.
Much of the disinformation surrounding these two issues comes from the right. Many Republicans believe that researchers who study disinformation are pressuring social media platforms to discriminate against conservative voices.
Those complaints were exacerbated by a decision by Twitter under its new owner, Elon Musk, to release some internal communications between government officials and Twitter employees. Administration officials urged Twitter to take action against accounts spreading disinformation, but did not order them to do so, as some critics claimed, the communications showed.
Patrick L. Warren, an associate professor at Clemson University, said researchers at the school provided documents to the committee and briefed some staff. “I think it’s mostly because of our presence in the Twitter file, which gives people a pretty distorted perception of our mission and what we do,” he said.
Last year, Republican attorneys general in Missouri and Louisiana sued the Biden administration in U.S. District Court in Louisiana, arguing that administration officials had effectively cajoled or coerced Twitter, Facebook and other social media platforms by threatening to change legislation. Judge Terry A. Doughty denied a defense motion to dismiss the lawsuit in March.
The focus of the current campaign is not government officials, but individuals working for universities or NGOs. They have their own First Amendment guarantees of free speech, including their interactions with social media companies.
America First Legal, the group behind the class-action lawsuit, names as defendants Alex Stamos and Renée DiResta, two researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory; Kate Starbird, a professor at the University of Washington; Camille François, an executive at Graphika; Senior Director Graham Brookie.
If the lawsuit proceeds, they could face trial and, if the charges are established, civil damages.
Miller, president of America First Legal, did not respond to a request for comment. In a statement last month, he said the lawsuit “cuts to the heart of the review of the industrial complex.”
The researchers, who are also defendants in a lawsuit brought by the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana, are seeking to turn over emails and other records by a House committee.Plaintiffs include Jill Hines, director of Health Freedom Louisiana, which has been Accused of spreading rumorsand Jim Hoft, founder of the right-wing news site Gateway Pundit.Under Judge Doughty, the Western District of Louisiana became a popular venue A legal challenge to the Biden administration.
The attacks used “the same arguments that started with some false premises,” said Jeff Hancock, founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab, which was not a party to any legal proceedings. “We’re seeing this in the media, in congressional committees and in lawsuits, and it’s the same core argument, but only if the government provides some kind of direction to the research we’re doing.”
The House Judiciary Committee has focused most of its questioning on two collaborative projects. One of these is the Partnership for Election Integrity, which Stanford and the University of Washington formed ahead of the 2020 election to identify attempts to “suppress voting, reduce participation, confuse voters, or legitimize election results without evidence.” . The other, also organized by Stanford, is called The Viral Spread Project, which focuses on the spread of misinformation about a Covid-19 vaccine.
Both topics have become political lightning rods, exposing researchers to partisan attacks online that sometimes turn ominously 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. Election Integrity Partnership.
A central premise of the committee’s investigation — and other complaints about censorship — is that a researcher or government official has the right or ability to close an account on social media. They didn’t, according to former employees of Twitter and Meta, which own Facebook and Instagram, who say the decision to punish users who violate the platforms’ rules rests solely with the companies.
There is no evidence that government officials coerced the companies to take action on the accounts, even when the groups flagged questionable content.
“As researchers, we not only have the academic freedom to conduct this research, but also the freedom of speech to tell Twitter or any other company to look at tweets that we may believe violate the rules,” Mr Hancock said.
Universities and research institutions have worked hard to comply with the committee’s request, although collecting years of emails has been a time-consuming task complicated by privacy concerns. They face mounting legal bills, as well as questions from directors and donors about the risks posed by research disinformation. Online attacks have also hit morale and, in some cases, scared away students.
In May, Mr. Jordan, the chairman of the committee, threatened Stanford with unspecified legal action for not complying with a previously issued subpoena, though lawyers for the university have been negotiating with lawyers for the committee over how to protect student privacy. (Some of the students who volunteered were identified in the first U.S. legal proceeding.)
The committee declined to discuss details of the investigation, including how many requests or subpoenas were filed in total. It also did not say how it expects the investigation to unfold – whether it will prepare a final report or make a criminal referral, and if so, when. In its statement, though, it appears to have drawn a broad conclusion.
“Twitter documents and information from the private lawsuit show how the federal government works with social media companies and other entities to suppress unwanted speech online,” spokeswoman Russell Day said in a statement. “The committee is working hard to find out the truth about this censorship to protect the First Amendment rights of all Americans.”
The partisanship has affected not only researchers but also social media giants.
Under Mr. Musk’s leadership, Twitter has focused on removing restrictions and reinstating suspended accounts, including that of Gateway Pundit. youtube recently announced It will no longer ban videos that promote “false claims of widespread fraud, error or malfunction in the 2020 and other past U.S. presidential elections.”