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A major disinformation research center's future looks uncertain

Photo by David Madison / Getty Images

The Stanford Internet Observatory, a small but prominent research group studying abuse on social media platforms, looks to be in crisis, according to a report by Platformer.

Some key staff have departed recently, including founding director Alex Stamos and research director Ren e DiResta, Platformer reports. A handful of staff have left recently after not having their contracts renewed, and other members have been told to look for other jobs. Platformer describes the turmoil as a “dismantling” of the research group.

Stanford Internet Observatory research centers on some of the most pressing types of abuse online, including threats to democracy and elections, artificial intelligence, and child sexual abuse material (CSAM). The group’s cutting-edge, real-time research on content moderation has been cited by news outlets around the world, including here at The Verge many times. Stamos founded the Internet Observatory in 2018 after working as Facebook’s chief security officer, hoping to create more accountability and transparency for issues that touch the tech industry, academia, and Capitol Hill.

Stanford didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment about the Internet Observatory’s future but told Platformer that the Internet Observatory’s work will continue under new leadership and that the university “remains deeply concerned about efforts... that chill freedom of inquiry and undermine legitimate and much needed academic research.” Platformer notes that some of the group’s work, including a peer-reviewed journal and conference on trust and safety, will remain.

The Internet Observatory’s work, like its research into election integrity, has made it a target for right-wing and Republican attacks. Researchers working on Election Integrity Partnership have been sued by right-wing groups who accuse them of “mass-surveillance and mass-censorship.”

The censorship claim stems from how the federal government communicates with social media platforms around topics like covid-19 disinformation and threats to elections. Government agencies sometimes communicate with platforms like Facebook, for example, to share public health information. In a case that has reached the Supreme Court, Republican attorneys general say the Biden administration suppressed free speech when it “coerced” social media companies into moderating certain content on their platforms. Researchers who study these topics and may share findings with the government have become recurring boogeyman characters in right-wing conspiracy theories online.

In response to lawsuits brought by attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana, Stanford has asserted that researchers have the right to conduct research and share their findings, including with government entities.

“Stanford will continue to defend its First Amendment rights including those of its faculty, staff and students, who are free to investigate all manner of subjects, free to collaborate with other scholars and organizations, and free to communicate their findings to the public, to private enterprise and to the government,” the university wrote.

Lawsuits targeting the Internet Observatory and other related research institutions could create a chilling effect for people studying contentious issues online particularly given the changes underway at Stanford. Individual researchers have faced threats against their careers and personal safety, and the potential reorganizing of the Internet Observatory is likely to be celebrated by the same forces working to delegitimize its work in the first place.






Published: 2024-06-14T10:39:11













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