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 disinformation, accusing them of colluding with the government to stifle conservative speech. online.
The effort has burdened its targets with extensive requests for information and, in some cases, subpoenas: demanding notes, emails, and other information related to social media companies and the government since 2015. Complying has consumed time and resources and has already groups affected. ‘ ability to investigate and raise money, according to several people involved.
They and others warned that the campaign undermined the fight against misinformation in American society when the problem is, by most accounts, on the rise, and with another presidential election looming. Many of those behind the Republican effort also joined former President Donald J. Trump in falsely challenging the outcome of the 2020 presidential election.
“I think it’s obviously a cynical, and I would say wildly partisan, attempt to freeze the investigation,” said Jameel Jaffer, executive director of Columbia University’s Knight Institute for the First Amendment, an organization that works to safeguard free speech. and press.
The House Judiciary Committee, which came under majority Republican control in January, has sent dozens of letters and subpoenas to investigators, only a few of which have been made public. He has threatened legal action against those who have not responded quickly or fully enough.
A conservative advocacy group led by Stephen Miller, a former Trump adviser, filed a class action lawsuit last month in the 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 Universities and the University of Washington; the Atlantic Council, the German Marshall Fund, and the National Conference on Citizenship, all independent nongovernmental organizations in Washington; the Wikimedia Foundation in San Francisco; and Graphika, a company that investigates misinformation online.
In a related line 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 have accused the groups of violating antitrust laws by conspiring to cut off ad revenue from content researchers and tech companies that are deemed harmful.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a close Trump ally, accused the organizations of “censoring unfavorable speech” involving issues that have galvanized the GOP: the policies surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. and the integrity of the American political system, including the outcome of the 2020 election.
Much of the misinformation surrounding both issues comes from the right. Many Republicans are convinced that researchers studying misinformation have pushed social media platforms to discriminate against conservative voices.
Those complaints have been fueled by Twitter’s decision under its new owner, Elon Musk, to publish select internal communications between government officials and Twitter employees. The communications show government officials urging Twitter to take action against accounts that spread disinformation, but stopping 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 documents to the committee and gave a brief presentation to some staff members. “I think most of this has been spurred by our appearance in the Twitter archives, which left people with a pretty distorted sense of our mission and work,” he said.
Last year, the Republican attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana sued the Biden administration in the US District Court in Louisiana, arguing that government officials effectively cajoled or coerced Twitter, Facebook and other networking platforms. by threatening legislative changes. The 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 non-governmental organizations. 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 Stanford Internet Observatory researchers, Alex Stamos and Renée DiResta, as defendants; a professor from the University of Washington, Kate Starbird; a Graphika executive, Camille François; and Senior Director of the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Investigation Laboratory, Graham Brookie.
If the lawsuit proceeds, they could face trial and potentially civil damages if the allegations are upheld.
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 “strikes at the heart of the censorship industrial complex.”
The investigators, who have been asked by the House committee to submit emails and other records, are also being sued in the lawsuit filed by the attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana. The plaintiffs include Jill Hines, director of Health Freedom Louisiana, an organization that has been accused of misinformationand Jim Hoft, the founder of the Gateway Pundit, a right-wing news site. The court for the Western District of Louisiana, under the direction of Judge Doughty, has become a favorite place for legal challenges against the Biden administration.
The attacks use “the same argument that starts with some false premises,” said Jeff Hancock, founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab, who is not a party to any of the legal actions. “We see it in the media, in congressional committees and in lawsuits, and it’s the same core argument, with a false premise about the government giving some kind of direction to the research we do.”
The House Judiciary Committee has focused much of its questioning on two collaborative projects. One was the Election Integrity Association, which Stanford and the University of Washington formed ahead of the 2020 election to identify attempts to “suppress voting, reduce turnout, mislead voters, or delegitimize election results without evidence.” The other, also organized by Stanford, was called the Virality Project and focused on the spread of misinformation about covid-19 vaccines.
Both issues have become political lightning rods, exposing researchers to online partisan attacks that have sometimes turned ominously personal.
In the case of the Stanford Internet Observatory, requests for information, including all emails, have even extended to students who volunteered to intern for the Electoral Integrity Association.
A central premise of the committee’s investigation, and of the other complaints about censorship, is that investigators 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 violated the platform’s rules rested solely with the companies.
No evidence has emerged that government officials forced the companies to take action against the accounts, even as the groups flagged problematic content.
“Not only do we have academic freedom as researchers to do this research, but we also have free speech to tell Twitter or any other company looking at tweets that we might think violate the rules,” Hancock said.
Universities and research organizations have tried to comply with the committee’s requests, though collecting years of emails has been a task complicated by privacy concerns. They face rising legal costs and questions from directors and donors about the risks posed by studying disinformation. Online attacks have also affected morale and, in some cases, driven students away.
In May, Mr. Jordan, the chair of the committee, threatened Stanford with unspecified legal action for failing to comply with a previously issued subpoena, even though the university’s lawyers have been negotiating with the committee’s lawyers about how to protect the student privacy. (Several of the students who volunteered are identified in the America First Legal complaint.)
The committee declined to discuss details of the investigation, including the number of requests or subpoenas it has filed in total. He has also not disclosed how he expects the investigation to unfold, 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 broad conclusion.
“Twitter archives and private litigation information show how the federal government worked with social media companies and other entities to silence unfavorable speech online,” a spokesman, Russell Dye, said in a statement. “The committee is working hard to get to the bottom of this blackout to protect First Amendment rights for all Americans.”
The partisan controversy is affecting not only researchers but also the social media giants.
Twitter, under Musk’s leadership, has worked to lift the restrictions and restore accounts that had been suspended, including that of the Gateway Pundit. Youtube recently announced that it would no longer ban videos that featured “false claims that widespread fraud, errors, or glitches occurred in the 2020 and past US presidential elections.”