Censorship funeral or reincarnation? Disinformation police defiant after Stanford guts project

Election Integrity Partnership suddenly claims it "finished its work" after 2022 election. University of Washington "affirms our unwavering support" for EIP co-lead Center for an Informed Public as Director Kate Starbird goes on offense.

Published: June 16, 2024 10:55pm

The Stanford Internet Observatory is getting out of election misinformation policing under a crush of lawsuits and congressional subpoenas about outsourced federal censorship and exit of its founding director, non-renewed contract for its CIA-tied research director, and likely exit or reassignment of the rest of its staff within the university.

The Election Integrity Partnership it co-led with the University of Washington's Center for an Informed Public for the first time claimed sometime between May 28 and May 31 that it "finished its work after" the 2022 cycle and "will not be working on the 2024 or future elections."

News-rating service NewsGuard, which generally rates left-leaning sources as far more reliable than right-leaning sources, could be the next to fall under defamation and First Amendment litigation and a new House Oversight Committee investigation about its business relationships with government entities, appearance of bias and conflicts of interest.

Twenty-one months after "Just the News" exclusively reported on EIP's hidden-in-plain-sight campaign to mass-report alleged misinformation to social media platforms for suppression in the months around the 2020 election, with a self-declared 35% success rate, a combination of litigation, public records requests and "Twitter Files" released by new owner Elon Musk exposed the scope of the so-called censorship-industrial complex and role of multiple federal agencies.

Whether the War on Terror-lite effort to determine or heavily shape what Americans can say and see online is fading or simply evolving isn't clear. 

The Supreme Court could clarify or further muddle the picture with its ruling on the constitutionality of the public-private cooperation, if not coercion, expected by month's end. Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., recently disclosed the feds resumed regular talks with tech platforms "roughly around the same time" of oral argument at SCOTUS.

Facebook owner Meta recently announced a new slew of "protections" timed around international sporting events, bragging it had spent more than $20 billion on "safety and security and quadrupled" that team to 40,000 – 15,000 of them "content reviewers."

Twitter Files reporter Matt Taibbi, who formerly covered Wall Street for "Rolling Stone" and testified in Congress about SIO as an "absolute fusion of state, corporate, and civil society organizations," warned his newsletter readers not to be "too quick to celebrate" SIO's gutting.

"Rumors persist that even more aggressive EIP-type programs are in development for use in this cycle, perhaps not under Stanford’s roof, but somewhere, using some of the same personnel, and making use of support from deep-pocketed funders of anti-disinformation programs," Taibbi wrote Friday, reviewing what he and collaborators unearthed.

His Twitter Files collaborator, contrarian environmental author and former California gubernatorial candidate Michael Shellenberger, called SIO's gutting a "major victory for free speech activists" and suggests Stanford's leadership "realizes the reputational damage" caused by Alex Stamos, SIO's founding director, and Renee DiResta, ex-research director.

While Stanford defended SIO's work in a friend-of-the-court brief in the social media censorship case Murthy v. Missouri in March, Platformer reported that Stanford had cut funding to SIO from donor Frank McCourt, the former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, which some staffers interpreted as the university "sour[ing] on its commitment to their work." 

McCourt put together a consortium to bid for Chinese-owned TikTok, which could be banned in the U.S. if ByteDance doesn't sell it, and migrate it to his Decentralized Social Networking Protocol, which he told Fast Company would not "amplify extreme behavior" such as disinformation, as he claims the "current internet is designed to do."

The protocol would also prevent the sort of centralized censorship carried out by social media platforms of their own volition or government direction, however.

Shellenberger speculated the timing of SIO's gutting was influenced by a book drop earlier in the week by DiResta, whose contract was not renewed, according to Platformer.

"Invisible Rulers" purports to expose the "machinery and dynamics of the interplay between influencers, algorithms, and online crowds" but actually spreads "disinformation about her critics, including me," Shellenberger wrote.

DiResta explained how she became "CIA Renee" in an Atlantic essay Saturday, four days after her book dropped, calling out Shellenberger four times for popularizing "the crank theory that I am some kind of secret agent" by calling her a "former" CIA staffer in scare quotes. 

She alleges her only CIA connection was an "undergraduate student fellowship" 20 years ago, though it was Stamos who publicized the fact that DiResta had "worked for the CIA."

"Even though the censorship fantasists have yet to explain what it is that the CIA uses me for today, I’m expected to prove that I’m not a spy," she wrote, claiming that people "email me death threats" under the impression they are fighting a "real cabal." She didn't explain the nature of her departure from SIO, just that she worked there "until recently."

While two other EIP principals, disinformation tracker Graphika and the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Lab, didn't respond to "Just the News" queries on the future of their work after EIP, the other co-lead is not shying away from the controversial work.

"The University of Washington affirms our unwavering support" of CIP's work, spokesperson Dana Robinson Slote wrote in an email Friday.

Its co-founder and director, Kate Starbird, just this week received UW's "prestigious" award for faculty whose research is "widely recognized by their peers" and "had a substantial impact" on society. She received a "societal impact award" from the Association for Computing Machinery's special interest group on "computer-human interaction" last month.

"The team is continuing its important research to study social media rumors in the weeks and months leading into Election Day this fall," Slote said.

The term "rumor" seems to be calculated for UW, judging by what Starbird told the Columbia Journalism Review for a May feature on disinformation and "journalists and media analysts with expertise in election coverage," which inexplicably features the House Oversight Committee's top Democrat, Maryland's Jamie Raskin.

Starbird advocated using "rumor" to describe "unofficial information traveling through informal channels" as "we" verify its accuracy. Rumors "can be a signal … for what people are worried about," and "public communicators and election officials" can then give them correct information, a "more empathetic approach," she said.

But Starbird is also worried about accurate information from local media that "partisan media" pick up and "rip out the context." The Department of Homeland Security's Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency calls this "malinformation," one component of a since-disbanded subcommittee that included Starbird and pre-Musk Twitter Chief Legal Officer Vijaya Gadde. 

Starbird urged local media to tailor "headlines and ledes" so they don't become "raw material for false narratives."

In a statement conveyed by Slote, Starbird said her team "did not coordinate" with CISA "during the run-ups to the 2020 and 2022 elections, and we are not coordinating with CISA in relation to our current election work."

EIP made similar claims in first responding to the reporting series by "Just the News" in fall 2022, and its after-action report on 2020 claims SIO's interns at CISA conceived of the consortium. 

Congressionally obtained communications and interviews, however, show EIP's principals credited CISA as the inspiration or co-inspiration of the consortium. Stamos, who reportedly left SIO in November, allegedly couldn't explain references to CISA's direct role in the consortium in a transcribed interview with the House Judiciary Committee.

Then-CISA Director Christopher Krebs communicated regularly with Stamos ahead of EIP's creation, and the two started a cyber consultancy together shortly after then-President Trump fired Krebs for claiming the 2020 election was secure despite "massive improprieties and fraud" alleged by Trump.

EIP participants included the Democratic National Committee and several federal offices, including CISA itself and the State Department's Global Engagement Center, now being sued by Texas for allegedly violating its social media neutrality law and conservative outlets for funding and promoting NewsGuard, whose negative ratings allegedly hurt their bottom line. 

Communications not obtained through litigation and Congress have largely come courtesy of Starbird's status as a public employee in Washington state. Taibbi posted a cache of public records productions in conjunction with the anonymous author UndeadFOIA on May 23.

Starbird warned followers hours earlier on Bsky, where many progressive Twitter users fled after Musk's purchase, to expect "a large set of our public records (ie emails) to be published" soon "to smear folks working to understand & address online disinformation." She trashed "Taibbi and others" for their "abuse of public records to attack researchers."

She set up a cheeky FAQ page, "CIP Public Records EXPOSED," to "provide some of the missing context to communications that we anticipate will be mischaracterized — and to share some of the communications that we expect the requesters to omit from their accounts." 

Starbird has done a tear of interviews and blog posts ahead of the productions' public release. Stamos, who remains Stanford faculty, interviewed her on the law school podcast Moderated Content, and Starbird spoke at Cornell's "Distinguished Speaker Series on free expression" on why "[c]ontent moderation is free speech, not censorship," the Ivy League university said.

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