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Intimidation works

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Political pressure and litigation have compelled Stanford to shut down its Internet Observatory, which tracked election-related disinformation. (My colleague Kate Starbird says that the University of Washington will continue its own program although the collaboration with Stanford is ending.) The black fly in your Chardonnay being that attacks on this research from Congressional Republicans and their water-carriers among people who take the TWITTER FILES seriously were based on the idea that identifying false and viral claims is somehow “censorship”:

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 Election Integrity Partnership, a prominent consortium run by the Observatory and a University of Washington team to identify viral falsehoods about election procedures and outcomes in real time, has updated its webpage to say its work has concluded.

Two ongoing lawsuits and two congressional inquiries into the Observatory have cost Stanford millions of dollars in legal fees, one of the people told The Washington Post. Students and scholars affiliated with the program say they have been worn down by online attacks and harassment amid the heated political climate for misinformation research, as legislators threaten to cut federal funding to universities studying propaganda.

Alex Stamos, the former Facebook chief security officer who founded the Observatory five years ago, moved into an advisory role in November. Observatory research manager Renée DiResta’s contract was not renewed in recent weeks.

DiResta’s story is an important and chilling one:

Each morning, Google Alerts arrive in my inbox detailing the adventures of a fictional character bearing my name. Last month she starred in an article about “A Global Censorship Prison Built by the Women of the CIA.” In a Substack article headlined “Media Ruled by Robust PsyOp Alliance,” later posted on Infowars, an anti-vaccine propagandist implicated my alter ego in a plot to bring about a “One World Government.” A blog post titled “When Military Rule Supplants Democracy” quoted commentators who lumped her in with the “color revolution blob”—a reference to popular revolts against Russian-backed governments—and the perpetrators of “dirty tricks” overseas. You get the idea. Somewhat flatteringly, the commentators who make up these stories portray me as highly competent; one post on X credited the imaginary me with “brainwashing all of the local elections officials” to facilitate the theft of the 2020 election from Donald Trump.

The plotlines in this cinematic universe go back to the so-called Twitter Files—internal documents released to a group of writers after Elon Musk bought the social-media platform. Some of those writers have posited the existence of a staggering “Censorship Industrial Complex,” of which I am supposedly a leader. In written testimony for a March 2023 hearing of Representative Jim Jordan’s Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, the Substack writer Michael Shellenberger claimed that my cohorts and I “censored 22 million tweets” during the 2020 election. It also insinuated that I have CIA ties that I’ve kept “hidden from public view.” The crank theory that I am some kind of secret agent caught on. X users with follower counts in the tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands started referring to me as “CIA Renee.” The mere mention of the character’s name—as with Thanos in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Lex Luthor in the DC Extended Universe—became enough to establish villainy.

The actual facts of my life are less dramatic: When I was in college, I participated in a CIA scholarship program for computer-science majors. I worked at the agency’s headquarters during the summers, doing entry-level tasks, and left in 2004. Over the next decade and a half, I worked in finance and tech. At some point, I dropped my undergraduate internship from my résumé, just as I dropped having been on the ballroom-dancing team. But if my CIA past was supposed to be a secret, I kept it so poorly that, when Stanford University hired me in 2019, a colleague made a spy joke as he introduced me to a roomful of people at an event livestreamed on YouTube.

The collapse of the Observatory is the latest and largest in a series of setbacks for the community of researchers who try to detect propaganda and explain how false narratives are manufactured, gather momentum and become accepted by various groups. It follows Harvard’s dismissal of misinformation expert Joan Donovan, who in a December whistleblower complaint alleged that the university’s close and lucrative ties with Facebook parent Meta led the university to clamp down on her work, which was highly critical of the social media giant’s practices.

DiResta’s new book looks interesting.

Of all of the Orwellian triumphs of the MAGA disinformation complex, this is among the most Orwellian.

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