UW misinformation researchers will not buckle under political attacks

by Kate Starbird at seattletimes.com

My University of Washington colleagues and I study online rumors, conspiracy theories, and disinformation.

In the past year, research like ours has come under fire — often by some of the same individuals and organizations that benefit from the spread of falsehoods.

While these attacks have, of course, been stressful, they also help us to improve how we communicate about our work in an increasingly adversarial space. Above all, contrary to a recent headline in The Washington Post, no one I know in our field is “buckling” or backing down.

We’ve been doing this research for more than a decade. We’ve studied the spread of online rumors around numerous events, including the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, and the recent Maui wildfires. Borrowing from methods in crisis informatics — a field that looks at social media use during crisis events — we often conduct “rapid research,” quickly analyzing and publicly communicating about social media dynamics during fast-moving events.

Recently, one focus of our team has been election rumors. We work both in real-time and long after the fact to understand how misleading information about voting emerges (often through misinterpretations or mischaracterizations), is amplified and spread online, and ultimately undermines trust in election processes and results. In 2020, we participated in a nonpartisan collaboration with researchers at the Stanford Internet Observatory, Graphika and the DFRLab that tracked election rumors in real-time.

About one year ago, online conspiracy theories targeted those research efforts, twisting our own reporting of our work into a “censorship” narrative. These theories soon sparked waves of online harassment and threats, then lawsuits, and eventually congressional inquiries

This is not just about the UW — it’s an assault on our entire field. From researchers we’ve worked with to those we’ve never met, no one is immune to these attacks, and scholars fear the potential impacts on their programs and their students.

At the UW, we’re not buckling and won’t be bullied. Our team plans to continue our rapid research during the 2024 elections, and we’re also encouraged by a recent 5th U.S. Circuit Appeals Court decision that affirmed our First Amendment rights to study and communicate around mis- and disinformation research. 

In candid conversations, colleagues across the nation echo those sentiments. Their commitment is unwavering. As I told The Post, “It’s clear to me that researchers and their institutions won’t be deterred by conspiracy theorists and those seeking to smear and silence this line of research for entirely political reasons.”