The Stanford Internet Observatory was established by former Facebook chief security officer Alex Stamos in 2019. Stamos had created a rift with top management at Facebook when he went public about Russia’s extensive use of the social media company’s platform to sow division in America and promote the 2016 candidacy of Donald Trump. His project at Stanford was to study misinformation on the internet in real time, when education could make a difference, rather than long after the damage was done. The Observatory investigated more than just elections and even expanded to look at child exploitation and anti-vaccine rings.

The University of Washington partnered with the Observatory to create the Election Integrity Partnership, and they came under attack. Now, you can probably guess that the attacks did not come from Democrats. Trump’s top adviser Stephen Miller’s law firm sued the Partnership in May 2023. Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio went on the warpath against them.

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.

Among top selective American universities, Stanford along with Dartmouth has the most conservative alumni and donors, so pressure was applied against the Observatory from that angle, too. It was incurring substantial legal costs and angering congressional Republicans and MAGA world. So, you can guess what happened next.

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.

The Republicans destroyed the program. But ask yourself why this was a purely partisan effort. Why didn’t the Democrats share any of the same concerns about the conduct of the Observatory? Weren’t they ever guilty of spreading disinformation about elections on the internet?

The answer is that the Democrats supported efforts to identify misinformation campaigns because those campaigns overwhelmingly originated on the right or in foreign countries looking to promote the American right or sow division that the right can exploit. The left could have evolved to match these efforts with lies of its own, but preferred to see academics do research and educate the public.

Maybe that’s fighting a tank with a peashooter, but at least it’s honest. The Democrats weren’t constantly being exposed and scolded for spreading lies and then crying that their free speech rights were being violated by simple academic analysis. They weren’t bullying college administrations or filing harassing law suits.

So, now the American public has lost an important resource in a presidential election cycle that specialized in identifying deceptive political influence operations and operators in real time. The Republicans consider this a great victory.

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

What does it mean when one party, but not the other, thinks “free speech” means the freedom to base a political movement on (sometime foreign-based) viral internet lies without being exposed or criticized for it by experts?

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