“Republican Rep. Jim Jordan Issues Sweeping Information Requests to Universities Researching Disinformation”


House Republicans have sent letters to at least three universities and a think tank requesting a broad range of documents related to what it says are the institutions’ contributions to the Biden administration’s “censorship regime.”

The letters are the latest effort by a House subcommittee set up in January to investigate how the federal government, working with social media companies, has allegedly been “weaponized” to silence conservative and right-wing voices. So far, the committee’s investigations have amplified a variety of dubious, outright false and highly misleading Republican grievances with law enforcement, many of them espoused by former President Donald Trump. Committee members have cited supposed abuses that include the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago, its investigations of Jan. 6 rioters and the Biden administration’s purported use of executive powers to shut down conservative viewpoints on social media.

Now, universities and their researchers are coming under the spotlight of the committee, which the Republicans have labeled the House Judiciary Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government. The letters, signed by Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who is chair of both the House Judiciary Committee and the subcommittee, were sent in early March.

They cover an investigation into how “certain third parties, including organizations like yours, may have played a role in this censorship regime by advising on so-called ‘misinformation,’” according to a copy of one of the letters obtained by ProPublica….

The letters have prompted a wave of alarm among those in the field that the congressional inquiry itself, no matter what it finds, will lead universities to pull back on this research just as the 2024 election gets underway. “Recent efforts definitely have a chilling effect on the community of experts across academia, civil society and government built up to understand broader online harms like harassment, foreign influence and — yes — disinformation,” Graham Brookie, who leads studies in this area at the Atlantic Council, told ProPublica.

“The ‘weaponization’ committee is being weaponized against us,” another researcher told ProPublica. Like half a dozen others interviewed for this story, this person asked not to be identified because of the ongoing congressional probe….

Since the 2016 elections, Stanford, UW, Clemson and others have engaged in research, sometimes in partnership with social media platforms, government officials and each other, into ways that disinformation can pose threats to democracy and how such efforts can be meaningfully countered. The role of lies and disinformation leading to the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol gave increased prominence to their work….

Stanford did not answer a question about whether it stood by its research or make its researchers, the Stanford Internet Observatory’s Alex Stamos or Renee DiResta, available for comment. The university referred ProPublica to an online fact sheet addressing “inaccurate and misleading claims” made in the congressional testimony about Stanford’s “projects to analyze rumors and narratives on social media relating to U.S. elections and the coronavirus.” The German Marshall fund said it was working to address the request and Clemson University’s media relations department did not respond to requests for comment.

The University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public issued a statement that said “We’re incredibly proud of our work,” adding that “some of the projects CIP researchers have contributed to have become the subject of false claims and criticism that mischaracterizes our work, a tactic that peer researchers in this space are also experiencing.” The statement did not specifically address the House requests.

A university spokesperson, Victor Balta, said in an email, “The UW stands behind this important research aiming to resist strategic misinformation and strengthen our discourse. We have received a request for documents and information, and a response is in progress.”

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