Academics, universities and government agencies are overhauling or ending research programs designed to counter the spread of online misinformation amid a legal campaign from conservative politicians and activists who accuse them of colluding with tech companies to censor right-wing views.
The escalating campaign — led by Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) and other Republicans in Congress and state government — has cast a pall over programs that study not just political falsehoodsbut also the quality of medical information online.
Facing litigation,Stanford University officials are discussing howthey can continue tracking election-related misinformation through the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP), a prominent consortium that flagged social media conspiracies about voting in 2020 and 2022, several participants told The Washington Post. The coalition of disinformation researchers may shrink and also may stop communicating with X and Facebook about their findings.
The National Institutes of Health froze a $150 million program intended to advance the communication of medical information, citing regulatory and legal threats. Physicians told The Post that they had planned to use the grants to fund projects on noncontroversial topics such as nutritional guidelines and not just politically charged issues such as vaccinations that have been the focus of the conservativeallegations.
NIH officials sent a memo in July to some employees, warning them not to flag misleading social media posts to tech companies and to limit their communication with the public to answering medical questions.
“If the question relates in any way to misinformation or disinformation, please do not respond,” read the guidance email, sent in July after a Louisiana judge blocked many federal agencies from communicating with social media companies. NIH declined to comment on whether the guidance was lifted in light of a September appeals court ruling, which significantly narrowed the initial court order.
“In the name of protecting free speech, the scientific community is not allowed to speak,” said Dean Schillinger,a health communication scientist who planned to apply to the NIH program to collaborate with a Tagalog-language newspaper to share accurate health information with Filipinos. “Science is being halted in its tracks.”
Academics and government scientists say the campaign also is successfully throttling the years-long effort to study online falsehoods, which grew after Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 election caught both social media sites and politicians unaware.
Interviews with more than two dozen professors, government officials, physicians, nonprofits and research funders, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss their internal deliberations freely, describe an escalating campaign emerging as online propaganda is rising.
Social media platforms have pulled back on moderating content even as evidence mounts that Russia and China have intensified covert influence campaigns; next week, the disinformation watchdog NewsGuard will release a study that found 12 major media accounts from Russia, China and Iran saw the number of likes and reposts on X nearly double after Musk removed labels calling them government-affiliated. Advances in generative artificial intelligence have opened the door to potentialwidespread voter manipulation.Meanwhile, public health officials are grappling with medical misinformation, as the United States heads into the fall and winter virus season.
Conservatives have long complained that social media platforms stifle their views, but the efforts to limit moderation have intensified in the past year.
The most high-profile effort, a lawsuit known as Missouri v. Biden, is now before the Supreme Court, where the Biden administration seeks to have the high court block a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit that found the White House, FBI and top federal health officials likely violated the First Amendment by improperly influencing tech companies’ decisions to remove or suppress posts on the coronavirus and elections. That ruling was narrower than a district court’s finding that also barred government officials from working with academic groups, including the Stanford Internet Observatory. But the Biden Justice Department argues the injunction still contradicts certain First Amendment principles, including that the president is entitled to use his bully pulpit to persuade American companies “to act in ways that the President believes would advance the public interest.”
“The university is deeply concerned about ongoing efforts to chill freedom of inquiry and undermine legitimate and much needed academic research in the areas of misinformation — both at Stanford and across academia,” Stanford Assistant Vice President Dee Mostofi told The Post. “Stanford believes strongly in academic freedom and the right of the faculty to choose the research they wish to pursue. The Stanford Internet Observatory is continuing its critical research on the important problem of misinformation.”
Jordan has issued subpoenas and demands for researchers’ communications with the government and social media platforms as part of a larger congressional probe into the Biden administration’s alleged collusion with Big Tech.
“This effort is clearly intended to deter researchers from pursuing these studies and penalize them for their findings,” Jen Jones, the program director for the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental group that promotes scientific research, said in a statement.
Disinformation scholars, many of whom tracked both covid-19 and 2020 election-rigging conspiracies, also have faced an onslaught of public records requests and lawsuits from conservative sympathizersechoing Jordan’s probe. Billionaire Elon Musk’s X has sued a nonprofit advocacy group, the Center for Countering Digital Hate, accusing it of improperly accessing large amounts of data through someone else’s license —a practice that researchers say is common. Trump adviser Stephen Miller’s America First Legal Foundation is representing the founder of the conspiracy-spreading website, the Gateway Pundit, in a May lawsuit alleging researchers at Stanford, the University of Washington and other organizations conspired with the government to restrict speech. The case is ongoing.
Nadgey Louis-Charles, a spokeswoman for the House Judiciary Committee that Jordan chairs, said the Jordan-led investigation is focused on “the federal government’s involvement in speech censorship, and the investigation’s purpose is to inform legislative solutions for how to protect free speech.”
“The Committee sends letters only to entities with a connection to the federal government in the context of moderating speech online,” she said. “No entity receives a letter from the Committee without a written explanation of the entity’s connection to the federal government.”
Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey (R), in a statement, said the federal government “silenced” information because “it didn’t fit their narrative.”
“Missouri v. Biden is the most important First Amendment case in a generation, which is why we’re taking it to the nation’s highest court,” he said.
“As a pro-democracy organization, American First Legal is committed to defeating the censorship-industrial complex that is crushing freedom and promoting dangerous conspiracy theories about Americans who dare to question government dogma,” Miller said in a statement.
‘A serious threat to the integrity of science’
In September 2022, an NIH council greenlit a $150 million program to fund research on how to best communicate health issues to the public. Administrators had planned the initiative for months, convening a strategy workshop with top tech and advertising executives, academics, faith leaders and physicians.
“We know there’s a lot of inaccurate health information out there,” said Bill Klein, the associate director of the National Cancer Institute’s Behavioral Research Program at a meeting approving the program. He showed a slide of headlines about how online misinformation hampered the response to the covid-19 pandemic, as well as other public health issues, including gun violence and HIV treatment.
The program was intended to address topics vulnerable to online rumors, including nutrition,tobacco, mental health and cancer screenings such as mammograms, according to three people who attended a planning workshop.
Yet in early summer 2023, NIH officials contacted someresearchers with the news that the grant program had been canceled. NIH appended a cryptic notice to its website in June, saying the program was on “pause” so that the agency could “reconsider its scope and aims” amid a heated regulatory environment.