The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

These academics studied falsehoods spread by Trump. Now the GOP wants answers.

Rep. Jim Jordan is demanding emails and meetings with leading disinformation researchers, part of a flurry of records requests, subpoenas and lawsuits that academics say have become a means of harassment

Kate Starbird, a founder of the Center for an Informed Public, poses for a portrait on the University of Washington at Seattle campus on March 6. (Jovelle Tamayo for The Washington Post)
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Republican House Judiciary Chairman Jim Jordan and his allies in Congress are demanding documents from and meetings with leading academics who study disinformation, increasing pressure on a group they accuse of colluding with government officials to suppress conservative speech.

Jordan’s colleagues and staffers met Tuesday on Capitol Hill with a frequent target of right-wing activists, University of Washington professor Kate Starbird, two weeks after they interviewed Clemson University professors who also track online propaganda, according to people familiar with the events.

Last week, Jordan (Ohio) threatened legal action against Stanford University, home to the Stanford Internet Observatory, for not complying fully with his records requests. The university turned over its scholars’ communications with government officials and big social media platforms but is holding back records of some disinformation complaints. Stanford told The Washington Post that it omitted internal records, some filed by students. The university is negotiating for limited interviews.

The push caps years of pressure from conservative activists who have harangued such academics online and in person and filed open-records requests to obtain the correspondence of those working at public universities. The researchers who have been targeted study the online spread of disinformation, including falsehoods that have been accelerated by former president and candidate Donald Trump and other Republican politicians. Jordan has argued that content removals urged by some in the government have suppressed legitimate theories on vaccine risks and the covid-19 origins as well as news stories wrongly suspected of being part of foreign disinformation campaigns.

Last month, the founder of the conspiracy-theory-prone outlet the Gateway Pundit and others sued Starbird and Stanford academics Alex Stamos and Renée DiResta, alleging that they are part of a “government-private censorship consortium” that tramples on free speech.

Although those pushing the inquiries have yet to score a major legal win or pass legislation, the campaign has kept alive the narrative that government officials violate the First Amendment’s free-speech guarantee by working with a variety of professors, Twitter and Facebook.

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The pressure has forced some researchers to change their approach or step back, even as disinformation is rising ahead of the 2024 election. As artificial intelligence makes deception easier and platforms relax their rules on political hoaxes, industry veterans say they fear that young scholars will avoid studying disinformation.

“The political part is intimidating — to have people with a lot of power in this world making false claims, false accusations about our work,” said Starbird, who has sharply cut back on public engagement. “We are putting that out of our minds and doubling down on the work, but we’re stepping a little bit away from the spotlight, because those tactics work.”

Starbird’s meeting Tuesday follows a letter from Jordan in March to the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, which she co-founded to focus on online disinformation. The letter demanded years of her communications, saying the center may have supported a “censorship regime” backed by the federal government.

“Whether directly or indirectly, a government-approved or-facilitated censorship regime is a grave threat to the First Amendment and American civil liberties,” Jordan wrote.

After an earlier Jordan letter to Stanford, lawyers at the institution warned researchers to be more thoughtful about what they said in emails. “It makes me more careful in my communications with colleagues and collaborators,” said professor Jeff Hancock, the faculty director of the Stanford Internet Observatory.

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Jordan spokesman Russell Dye argued that the multitude of requests will build on evidence that shows an organized effort to tamp down conservative speech online. “The committee is working hard to get to the bottom of this censorship to protect First Amendment rights for all Americans,” he said.

Academic institutions and philanthropic organizations kick-started the disinformation research field six years ago after revelations that Russian operatives were covertly using social media to influence the 2016 presidential election, and it became a booming sector of scholarship dissecting the anatomy of viral conspiracies. Some findings drew wide attention, such as reports that Russians pushed anti-vaccine narratives abroad while promoting vaccines at home.

But the study of online disinformation turned into a political lightning rod, with partisan groups sparring over who determines what is true and what the consequences should be, if any, for those who persistently spread lies.

Many of the academics who are under the microscope have worked on the most fraught topics, such as false claims that fraud cost former president Donald Trump the 2020 presidential election, conspiracy theories about coronavirus vaccines, and foreign influence campaigns targeting Americans.

Jordan’s committee has sent records requests to a number of universities and independent research groups that worked on the Virality Project, which monitored anti-vaccine narratives across social media platforms after coronavirus vaccines became available, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of not being authorized to speak publicly.

Groups that received demands for information include the Stanford Internet Observatory, the University of Washington, the National Conference on Citizenship, and New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics as well as its Tandon School of Engineering, the person said.

In one letter obtained by The Post, Jordan alleges strong ties between the Virality Project and federal government agencies, most notable being the Office of the Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The letter seeks years worth of communications between employees at those organizations and representatives of the executive branch and social media companies.

“The entanglement of Executive Branch agencies, third-party organizations, and technology companies to moderate speech-related content online raises questions about the extent to which these actions affected the civil liberties of American citizens,” Jordan wrote.

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The Republican-led House Homeland Security Committee also has become involved, asking Stanford and the University of Washington for additional records.

The deluge of bad information about disinformation researchers’ work also has led to a torrent of digital harassment, threats and smears.

Starbird has long been a target of online harassment, but the campaigns have grown brutal. After Starbird provided a statement to the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol describing how extremists behind the attack collaborated via social media platforms, internet foes besieged her government employer with demands for her private emails and told her that they knew where she lived.

Even when her colleagues and peers publicly backed her, the abuse took its toll. Starbird walked away from her Twitter account, which had roughly 50,000 followers, and cut back on media appearances, a venue in which she could explain her findings to a broader audience.

As the field of disinformation research has grown more politically contentious, researchers say that records requests, subpoenas and lawsuits have become tools of harassment. The fear of being targeted is profound enough that several researchers spoke on the condition that they not be named, and one prominent professor asked to be removed from the story entirely, citing concerns about his family’s safety.

“The set of techniques used to harass people online has gotten more sophisticated,” said Alice Marwick, an associate professor of communications at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “Right now, there’s a lot of bad actors who are using freedom of information requests to harass academics working at public universities. And that wasn’t something we saw until a few years ago.”

One of the most-targeted groups is the Election Integrity Partnership, a joint effort by the Center for an Informed Public, the Stanford Internet Observatory and other groups. Formed in 2020 to help prevent the rapid spread of the most impactful unidentified propaganda, the partnership published real-time reports, flagging factually false information about election procedures and results.

As part of the effort, the partnership created a system of tickets for reviewing potentially harmful disinformation online. Researchers forwarded those tickets to companies including Twitter, TikTok and YouTube for review. Some of the most commonly flagged posts alleged that Dominion Voting Systems software switched Trump votes to Joe Biden votes, according to the group’s final report.

The partnership’s internal system is now the subject of the skirmish between Stanford and Jordan, who wants copies of all the tickets. He says groups like the partnership may be promoting a “censorship regime” with the support of the federal government.

In recent months, such claims have spread widely via alternative media and social media influencers. The Foundation for Freedom Online, a self-described free-speech watchdog group, alleges that the partnership’s project was part of a “domestic censorship” operation run from the Department of Homeland Security.

Right-leaning critics also have sought to cast doubt on the nature of some researchers’ funding. The Foundation for Freedom Online has argued that research grants from the National Science Foundation, an independent agency of the federal government, to institutions including Stanford and the University of Washington to study social media disinformation is an effort to support censorship online.

After that report was issued, Protect the Public’s Trust, which bills itself as a watchdog group, sent records requests to public universities that have used NSF grants to study disinformation, citing the Twitter Files and articles by the Foundation for Freedom Online in its requests. Protect the Public’s Trust sent requests to at least the University of Wisconsin at Madison, UNC Chapel Hill and Michigan State University, according to the universities and documents reviewed by The Post.

In January, the group asked for records of communications since 2020 from employees of UNC Chapel Hill who may have used two separate NSF grants to study disinformation and social-media-data collection during elections. The group argued that the research has “infringed ... upon the First Amendment rights of American citizens,” according to a copy of the document. That same month, the group sent a records request to the University of Wisconsin at Madison for communications between employees and Starbird, the social media tracking company Graphika, and the Election Integrity Partnership, records show.

“The federal government has funded organizations involved in censoring American citizens’ speech and also funded university projects designed to feed and support what some have termed the Censorship Industrial Complex,” Protect the Public’s Trust’s director, Michael Chamberlain, said in a statement.

Will Oremus contributed to this report.