Renee DiResta, in Washington, August 2018.

Those counting on Renée DiResta and her team at the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO) to guide them through the thicket of disinformation in the run-up to the November 5 elections in the US will have to find other sources. The Californian university has refused to renew the contract of the researcher, a recognized figure in the fight against online propaganda who has been the target of numerous conspiracy attacks herself.

According to DiResta and friends, Stanford’s leadership has capitulated to pressure from ultraconservatives and their Republican proxies in Congress to shut down an organization that had helped track the spread of false information about the outcome of the 2020 presidential election and the efficacy of Covid-19 vaccines.

The contracts of DiResta and part of her team have not been renewed. Their departure, in addition to that of SIO founder Alex Stamos, Facebook’s former director of security, in November 2023, has effectively dismantled the observatory’s activities. The university denied that it wished to close it down but said that the remaining employees would focus primarily on “child safety and other online harms.”

Prosecution for violation of the First Amendment

In the firing line was the joint project the observatory was running with three other entities, including the University of Washington. Called the Election Integrity Partnership, the project was accused of censorship by Donald Trump’s supporters. In 2023, ultraconservative Ohio Representative Jim Jordan, president of the House Judiciary Committee, attempted to discredit the researchers through subcommittee hearings regarding the instrumentalization of the federal government.

These resulted in lawsuits against Stanford for violating the First Amendment on free speech and against Stamos and DiResta, directly targeted by a lawsuit brought by America First Legal, the organization headed by Stephen Miller, Trump’s former adviser.

Researchers involved in the project were inundated with summonses and requests for documents, resulting in millions of dollars in legal fees for Stanford. Emails made public through the proceedings showed that the little hands – students at the institutions involved – recommended the elimination of jokes, satire and opinions deemed non-compliant, reinforcing conservatives in their certainty that they were dismantling “the largest mass surveillance and mass censorship program in American history,” according to the text of Miller’s complaint against Stamos and DiResta.

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