Stanford’s top disinformation research group collapses under pressure

Stanford’s top disinformation research group collapses under pressure

The Stanford Internet Observatory, which published some of the most influential analysis of the spread of false information on social media during elections, has shed most of its staff and may shut down amid political and legal attacks that have cast a pall on efforts to study online misinformation.

Just three staffers remain at the Observatory, and they will either leave or find roles at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center, which is absorbing what remains of the program, according to eight people familiar with the developments, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.

Subscribe to The Post Most newsletter for the most important and interesting stories from The Washington Post.

The Election Integrity Partnership, a prominent consortium run by the Observatory and a University of Washington team to identify viral falsehoods about election procedures and outcomes in real time, has updated its webpage to say its work has concluded.

Two ongoing lawsuits and two congressional inquiries into the Observatory have cost Stanford millions of dollars in legal fees, one of the people told The Washington Post. Students and scholars affiliated with the program say they have been worn down by online attacks and harassment, amid the heated political climate for misinformation research, as legislators threaten to cut federal funding to universities studying propaganda.

Alex Stamos, the former Facebook chief security officer who founded the Observatory five years ago, moved into an advisory role in November. Observatory research manager Renée DiResta’s contract was not renewed in recent weeks.

The collapse of the Observatory is the latest and largest in a series of setbacks for the community of researchers who try to detect propaganda and explain how false narratives are manufactured, gather momentum and become accepted by various groups. It follows Harvard’s dismissal of misinformation expert Joan Donovan, who in a December whistleblower complaint alleged that the university’s close and lucrative ties with Facebook parent Meta led the university to clamp down on her work, which was highly critical of the social media giant’s practices.

“The Stanford Internet Observatory has played a critical role in understanding a range of digital harms,” said Kate Starbird, who led the University of Washington’s work on the Election Integrity Partnership and continues to publish on election misinformation.

Starbird said that while most academic studies of online manipulation look backward from much later, the Observatory’s “rapid analysis” helped people around the world understand what they were seeing on platforms as it happened.

Brown University professor Claire Wardle said the Observatory had created innovative methodology and trained the next generation of experts.

“Closing down a lab like this would always be a huge loss, but doing so now, during a year of global elections, makes absolutely no sense,” said Wardle, who previously led research at the anti-misinformation nonprofit First Draft. “We need universities to use their resources and standing in the community to stand up to criticism and headlines.”

Stanford University spokesperson Dee Mostofi said in a statement that much of the Observatory’s work would continue under new leadership, “including its critical work on child safety and other online harms, its publication of the Journal of Online Trust and Safety, the Trust and Safety Research Conference, and the Trust and Safety Teaching Consortium.”

“Stanford remains deeply concerned about efforts, including lawsuits and congressional investigations, that chill freedom of inquiry and undermine legitimate and much needed academic research - both at Stanford and across academia,” Mostofi added.

The study of misinformation has become increasingly controversial, and Stamos, DiResta and Starbird have been besieged by lawsuits, document requests and threats of physical harm. Leading the charge has been Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), whose House subcommittee alleges that the Observatory improperly worked with federal officials and social media companies to violate the free-speech rights of conservatives.

Jordan has demanded reams of documents from Stanford, including records of students discussing social media posts as they volunteered to help the Observatory, and Stamos testified before the House Judiciary Committee for eight hours.

“Free speech wins again!” Jordan posted on X on Friday, calling the Observatory part of a “censorship regime.”

Donald Trump adviser Stephen Miller’s law firm filed a First Amendment lawsuit in May 2023 against the Observatory, Stamos, DiResta and others; it is still pending.

In a joint statement, Stamos and DiResta said that their work involved much more than elections and that they had been unfairly maligned.

“The politically motivated attacks against our research on elections and vaccines have no merit, and the attempts by partisan House committee chairs to suppress First Amendment-protected research are a quintessential example of the weaponization of government,” they said.

“We are thankful to Stanford for defending our work, including in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, and are confident that the judicial system will eventually act to protect our speech and the speech of other academics.” The high court will rule within weeks on a case known as Missouri v. Biden, which includes claims against the Observatory.

The staff cuts were first reported late Thursday by the social media newsletter Platformer.

Stamos founded the Observatory after publicizing that Russia has attempted to influence the 2016 election by sowing division on Facebook, causing a clash with the company’s top executives. Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III later cited the Facebook operation in indicting a Kremlin contractor. At Stanford, Stamos and his team deepened his study of influence operations from around the world, including one it traced to the Pentagon.

Stamos told associates he stepped back from leading the Observatory last year in part because the political pressure had taken a toll. He had raised most of the money for the project, and the remaining faculty members have not been able to replicate his success, as many philanthropic groups shift their focus to artificial intelligence and other, fresher topics.

Major, time-limited grants from the Hewlett Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts and others have ended, those organizations confirmed to The Post. No comparable new grants have materialized.

Staff hoped Stanford might step in to fund the group through the momentous November election.

In supporting the project further, the university would have risked alienating conservative donors, Silicon Valley figures and members of Congress, who have threatened to stop all federal funding for disinformation research or cut back general support.

The Observatory’s non-election work included developing a curriculum for teaching college students how to handle trust and safety issues on social media platforms, and launching the first peer-reviewed journal dedicated to that field. It also investigated rings that published child sexual exploitation material online and flaws in the U.S. system for reporting it, helping prepare platforms to handle an influx of computer-generated material.

“We hope that Stanford is willing to support the remainder of the SIO team and serve as a safe home for future research into how the internet is used to cause harm against individuals and our democracy,” Stamos and DiResta said in the statement.

Related Content

The 2024 ‘Deciders’: Who are they and what makes them tick?

Here’s what the Christian right wants from a second Trump term