Stanford Internet Observatory wilts under legal pressure during election year

Because who needs disinformation research at times like these

The Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO), which for the past five years has been studying and reporting on social media disinformation, is being reimagined with new management and fewer staff following the recent departure of research director Renee DiResta.

The changes coincide with conservative legal challenges to the US university group's online speech moderation efforts, particularly around elections. A Stanford spokesperson responded in a statement that insists SIO is not being dismantled and that the organization will continue to pursue its mission under new leadership.

Stanford's spokesperson told The Register, noting that SIO will continue working on child safety and other online dangers. Just not election misinformation it seems, which is odd considering the year. There is a presidential race in the USA, for one thing, as well as a general election in the UK.

"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," the spokesperson told us.

The Register asked whether a new leader has been named, whether election integrity work will continue, and whether SIO will operate under the same name. We were referred to Jeff Hancock, director of the Stanford Social Media Lab and the Cyber Policy Center, under which the SIO operates. Hancock, however, had no comment.

Alex Stamos, the former chief security officer at Yahoo and Facebook who founded SIO, moved to an advisory role last November.

According to The Washington Post, only three staffers remain with SIO, which currently lists nine employees.

SIO came under fire last year from the Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, overseen by House Judiciary chairman Jim Jordan (R-OH). Last summer the panel demanded documents from SIO related to its online speech moderation efforts and threatened legal action for non-compliance. Stanford is said to have partially complied.

SIO participated in the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP) and the Virality Project (VP), along with other organizations, in an effort to limit online misinformation. Those efforts made it the target of legal groups like America First Legal, which sued SIO and those involved last November claiming [PDF] that the EIP, as a public-private partnership, violates First Amendment free speech rights.

A November 2023 report [PDF] from the subcommittee claimed, EIP was created at the request of the US Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) and that "EIP provided a way for the federal government to launder its censorship activities in hopes of bypassing both the First Amendment and public scrutiny." Under the First Amendment, the government is prohibited from policing speech, with limited exceptions.

Two lawsuits and two ongoing Congressional investigations, according to the Post, have saddled Stanford with millions of dollars in legal fees. Hence Stanford's concern about lawsuits and congressional investigations "that chill freedom of inquiry and undermine legitimate and much needed academic research." ®

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