G.O.P. focuses on researchers investigating disinformation prior to the 2024 election

G.O.P. focuses on researchers investigating disinformation prior to the 2024 election

Republican lawmakers and activists have launched a broad legal campaign targeting universities, think tanks, and private companies that study the spread of disinformation. They accuse these institutions of colluding with the government to suppress conservative speech online, seeking to undermine efforts to combat false claims about elections, vaccines, and other hot political topics. The campaign involves extensive information requests, subpoenas, and legal threats against the targeted organizations. Compliance has consumed their time and resources, hampering their research and fundraising capabilities. Critics argue that this campaign undermines the fight against disinformation, particularly as the problem is on the rise and with an upcoming presidential election looming. Many of those involved in the effort had previously challenged the outcome of the 2020 election along with former President Donald J. Trump.

The House Judiciary Committee, now under Republican majority control, has sent numerous letters and subpoenas to researchers, some of which have been made public. The committee has threatened legal action against those who fail to respond promptly or adequately. Additionally, a conservative advocacy group led by former Trump advisor Stephen Miller filed a class-action lawsuit echoing the committee’s allegations, targeting some of the same defendants. The list of targets includes prestigious universities such as Stanford, Clemson, and New York Universities, along with nonpartisan organizations like the Atlantic Council and the Wikimedia Foundation. Graphika, a company specializing in disinformation research, is also among the targets.

The committee has also issued a subpoena to the World Federation of Advertisers and the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, accusing them of antitrust violations for conspiring to cut off advertising revenue for content researchers and tech companies deemed harmful. Representative Jim Jordan, the committee’s chairman and a close Trump ally, accuses these organizations of censorship against conservative speech, particularly on Covid-19 policies and the integrity of the American political system.

The campaign against researchers studying disinformation stems from the belief among many Republicans that social media platforms have been influenced by these researchers to discriminate against conservative voices. Twitter’s recent release of internal communications between government officials and Twitter employees has fueled these complaints. However, the communications show officials urging action against disinformation-spreading accounts without ordering Twitter to do so, as some critics had claimed.

Researchers targeted in the campaign, including those from Stanford, the University of Washington, and other institutions, have provided documents and presentations to the House committee. They argue that their work has been distorted and misunderstood, particularly due to their appearance in the released Twitter files. Last year, Republican attorneys general from Missouri and Louisiana sued the Biden administration, alleging that government officials coerced social media platforms through threats of legislative changes. The lawsuit is ongoing and is heard in a Louisiana court known for legal challenges against the Biden administration.

The current campaign primarily focuses on private individuals working for universities and non-governmental organizations, who have their own First Amendment rights to free speech, including interactions with social media companies. The class-action lawsuit filed by America First Legal targets specific researchers, potentially subjecting them to trial and civil damages if the accusations hold.

The House Judiciary Committee has honed in on two collaborative projects for questioning: the Election Integrity Partnership and the Virality Project. Both initiatives, formed by Stanford and the University of Washington, have been subject to partisan attacks online and have become lightning rods for political controversy. The requests for information have extended to students who volunteered for the Election Integrity Partnership, adding to the researchers’ burdens.

The committee’s investigation and the broader complaints about censorship rely on false premises that government officials or researchers had the power to shut down social media accounts. Former employees at Twitter and Meta (which owns Facebook and Instagram) have stated that the decision to penalize users for violating platform rules solely rests with the companies. There is no evidence of government coercion to take action against accounts, even when problematic content was flagged.

The universities and research organizations targeted in the campaign have attempted to comply with the committee’s requests, but the collection of years’ worth of emails has proven time-consuming and complicated due to privacy concerns. These institutions face mounting legal costs and concerns from directors and donors about the risks associated with studying disinformation. Online attacks have negatively affected morale and, in some cases, discouraged students from participating.

The House Judiciary Committee has not disclosed specific details about the investigation, the number of requests or subpoenas filed, or its future plans. However, it has asserted that the federal government worked with social media companies to silence disfavored speech, based on information from the released Twitter files and private litigation. The committee aims to protect First Amendment rights but has already drawn a broad conclusion regarding censorship.

The controversy surrounding the campaign has also impacted social media giants. Twitter, under Elon Musk’s ownership, has lifted restrictions and restored suspended accounts, including the Gateway Pundit’s. YouTube recently announced that it would no longer ban videos making false claims about widespread fraud, errors, or glitches in past U.S. presidential elections, including the 2020 election.