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Stanford Internet Observatory shutting down?

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Is the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO) shutting down? Conflicting reports came out yesterday; some say yes, some say no. But on one thing these reports seem to agree: the Stanford Internet Observatory will not continue its “election integrity” work. The U.S. Supreme Court will shortly release an opinion and order in Murthy v. Missouri, themajor lawsuit involving the SIO and its role in the Censorship Industrial Complex. At issue is an injunction against the federal government, which injunction would affect the SIO and its election-related activities. Despite apparent attempts to deny the shutdown rumors, the SIO would appear not to want to wait for any injunction to take effect.

History of the Stanford Internet Observatory

The Stanford Internet Observatory figures prominently in the Twitter Files series of stories. They are the private part of a public-private partnership with the federal government. This partnership existed to “flag” certain assertions as “misinformation, disinformation, and mal-information” and weaken the reach of those who uttered or repeated those assertions.

The SIO figures in stories about many famous names, including:

  • Alex Stamos and Renee DiResta, its head and director of research, and
  • The Election Integrity Partnership, Virality Project, Graphika, and DFRLab.

The SIO is actually under attack from two different directions. First, of course, is the original Missouri v. Biden lawsuit – which, last year, resulted in a massive preliminary injunction. (See here and here for a more detailed treatment.) That injunction is now before the Supreme Court – argued in March, with a decision expected next Thursday. Second are the investigations by the House Judiciary Committee and its Weaponization Subcommittee. About six weeks ago that Subcommittee released an 881-page report on the federal government’s censorship activities. Many of those activities involved the Stanford Internet Observatory and similar organizations. The Committee and Subcommittee have also issued multiple subpoenas asking for documents relating to the SIO and its projects. According to one report, the Subcommittee has occasionally summoned students – graduate and undergraduate – to appear before it.

Latest reports

First to report on the Stanford Internet Observatory, and to allege that it was shutting down, was The Platformer. Two reporters – Casey Newman and Zoë Schiffer – broke the story. They seem to be sympathetic to the SIO and its aims, for they couch their report in dire terms.

According to The Platformer, the SIO originally had a staff of eight (though Thomas Claburn at The Register counted nine). Alex Stamos, the founder, has been gone for seven months; Renee DiResta, the research director, left last week. Rumors have several other members of staff told to seek employment elsewhere. Whether the name Stanford Internet Observatory will remain is an open question.

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A third outlet, The Verge, stated that they have cited SIO’s work many times. Censoring conservative opinion and protecting an all-right-people-nothing-to-see-here-move-on narrative about elections in America is apparently not all the SIO does. The three outlets mention these other things the SIO team has researched:

  • Artificial intelligence (AI) and its incorporation into many areas of human endeavor, and
  • The safety of children on social media and elsewhere on the Internet.

In fact SIO gets credit for establishing two initiatives that could be related to child safety, or to censorship generally:

  • Journal of Online Trust and Safety, which the three outlets say has a peer-review program, and
  • The Trust and Safety Research Conference.

All this work will continue under the Stanford Social Media Laboratory, which Jeff Hancock, Professor of Communications at Stanford, directs.

The denial

Stanford released this statement after initial publication of the Platformer article, objecting to their use of the verb to dismantle.

The important work of SIO continues under new leadership, including its critical work on child safety and other online harms, its publication of theJournal of Online Trust and Safety, the Trust and Safety Research Conference, and the Trust and Safety Teaching Consortium. Stanford remains deeply concerned about efforts, including lawsuits and congressional investigations, that chill freedom of inquiry and undermine legitimate and much needed academic research – both at Stanford and across academia.

In fact, the House Judiciary Committee and Weaponization Subcommittee have never objected to any research on child safety or the protection of children from falling into dangerous relationships with adults. Their sole objection has been to the censorship of politically sensitive messages. That activity, apparently, will cease. Three publications, all sympathetic to the aim of censorship of conservative content, have expressed dismay that these efforts shall cease.

See, for instance, this tag line on the Verge article:

The Stanford Internet Observatory studied key issues plaguing online spaces, like election and vaccine disinformation. It’s long been a target of Republican lawmakers.

Not a word here about preventing the luring, priming, grooming, and abuse of children. That is a legitimate, indeed pressing, area of concern. But CNAV does not recall seeing favorable reviews of Sound of Freedom on its pages, when it out-grossed several Walt Disney films that often had twenty times its total budget, while speaking directly to child trafficking.

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The Stanford Internet Observatory still has an X profile. But the most recent posts appear to be nearly a year old. For what it’s worth, those recent posts do not concern “election integrity” or “threats to democracy.” They in fact concern access to social media by minors, and a plethora of child porn that users are generating by submitting prompts to AI image generators. The most recent posts on politically sensitive or “partisan” material date back to May 24, 2023.

Did the Stanford Internet Observatory redact its X profile?

In short this profile has a plethora of child-safety material and relative paucity of politically sensitive material. This suggests either heavy redaction or a strategic decision not to share censorship-related material under that profile.

The “Wayback Machine” provides a further clue. A search of “crawls” and “snapshots” of the profile, listed under the twitter.com domain, reveals no snapshot since this one. That snapshot dates from June 29, 2023 and shows the same posts that now show on the profile. Whether someone at SIO anticipated the injunction, and sanitized the site on June 29, 2023, is impossible to determine. But clearly someone decided, even before the injunction came down, to make SIO look as though it did good work. Good work, that is, and not the bad work of which so many conservatives have had cause to complain.

Jim Hoft at The Gateway Pundit provided this summary of the Platformer article. He also reminded his readers that he is one of the lead plantiffs in the Murthy v. Missouri lawsuit.

Analysis

The actions of the Stanford Internet Observatory, both recent and dating back to last year, bespeak consciousness of guilt. Certainly they bespeak consciousness of likelihood of losing on the merits. Are its staff disappearing, like mice when someone has turned on the light? Might they be trying to “moot the case,” the same as the Los Angeles Unified School District tried when the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit heard a case against their COVID vaccine mandate? (A three-judge panel not only declared that COVID vaccines did not prevent transmission, but also reprimanded the LAUSD for trying to play games to moot the case.)

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By no accident, “vaccine misinformation” was also a target of the Stanford Internet Observatory. Their re-emphasis on child sexual abuse only, and on AI-generated child porn, does not ring true. The country – and that House Committee and Subcommittee – are waiting to hear what the Supreme Court has to say. Regardless of that, no one should trust the SIO any further than one could physically launch the building they occupy.

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Terry A. Hurlbut has been a student of politics, philosophy, and science for more than 35 years. He is a graduate of Yale College and has served as a physician-level laboratory administrator in a 250-bed community hospital. He also is a serious student of the Bible, is conversant in its two primary original languages, and has followed the creation-science movement closely since 1993.

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