Experts say a campaign of legal and political pressure from the right has cast efforts to combat rumors and conspiracy theories as censorship. And as a result, they say, the tools and partnerships that tried to flag and tamp down on falsehoods in recent election cycles have been scaled back or dismantled. That’s even as threats loom from foreign governments and artificial intelligence, and as former President Donald Trump, who still falsely claims to have won the 2020 contest, is likely to use the same tactics again as he pursues the White House in 2024.
Added Wilcox: “Everybody is gun-shy.”…
Amid that furor, in May 2022, the Republican attorneys general of Missouri and Louisiana filed a lawsuit accusing the Biden administration of colluding with social media companies to censor conservative speech, by pressing platforms to take action on misleading posts about COVID-19 and elections.
This July, a Trump-appointed federal judge ruled the government had likely violated the First Amendment and issued a sweeping injunction blocking agencies’ communications with platforms about most content. The injunction was narrowed by an appeals court, before being put on hold last month by the Supreme Court, which is slated to hear the case this term.
Pressure is coming from Congress as well, where the House Judiciary Committee’s Select Subcommittee on the Weaponization of the Federal Government, led by GOP Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a Trump ally, is conducting its own probe into alleged collusion between the Biden administration and tech companies to unconstitutionally shut down political speech.
To be sure, there is an open debate about what role the government should take in countering rumors or lies about high-risk subjects like elections and public health, and widespread skepticism about the power social media companies wield over public discourse.
But the government, platforms and researchers say the lawsuit and investigation unfairly mischaracterize their communications. They say that while officials and outside groups flag content they believe may break the social networks’ rules, it’s ultimately up to the tech companies to decide what action to take.
Jordan is subpoenaing researchers and social media companies, demanding years of email correspondence and conducting hours-long interviews, which his staff has used to make explosive accusations against federal agencies, nonprofit organizations and academic institutions.
“What the federal government could not do directly, it effectively outsourced to the newly emerging censorship-industrial complex,” committee staff wrote in a report published this week….
Academics and researchers who participated in the Election Integrity Partnership in 2020 have been targeted by Jordan’s probe, as well as a private lawsuit brought by America First Legal, an organization run by former Trump adviser Stephen Miller. Those involved say it’s unlikely the partnership will have the same level of information sharing next year.
“The weaponized criticism of research on misinformation is having a negative impact on our ability to understand and address what many of us feel to be a pretty large societal problem,” said Kate Starbird, a co-founder of the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, one of the members of the EIP. She’s been the target of harassment and threats over that work.
“They are limiting our ability just to do the research, because we’re spending too much time with our lawyers, but also limiting our ability to have conversations with the people who need our work the most, whether that’s election officials or whether that’s social media platforms,” she said.