After making a cameo appearance in the Jan. 6 hearings, a University of Washington professor was pounced upon, virtually, by national media and a Missouri Senate candidate.
The situation offers a different perspective on the local journalism crisis and the underlying challenge of ensuring that Americans continue receiving trustworthy, factual information.
Kate Starbird, who co-founded the UW Center for an Informed Public that researches misinformation online, said she received harassing messages after the Election Integrity Partnership she’s part of made a written statement to the Jan. 6 committee.
Starbird and the CIP also received a batch of public-records requests, starting with two on Sept. 14 from the conservative Daily Caller news site. It requested all communications between CIP, social media companies and the federal Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
Because CIP’s now 40-person group of researchers and students does academic work on and sometimes with the companies, and has current and former students and family members and friends working or interning at the companies, the request involves of “thousands of different relationships,” Starbird said.
“The requests are so vast that it’s just going to move very slowly unless the requesters are more targeted in what they’re looking for,” she said.
That was followed two weeks later by an expansive request from Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who sided with former President Donald Trump in his failed and court-rejected efforts to overturn the will of the people in the 2020 presidential election.
A Republican running for U.S. Senate, Schmitt continues stoking doubts about the U.S. election system, with his campaign site talking about “glaring illegal actions involving our sacred elections” in 2020, for instance.
Schmitt went on a similar fishing expedition at the University of Missouri in June, seeking three years of email between journalism professors and the director of nonprofit fact-checker PolitiFact. A press association lawyer told The Associated Press Schmitt is using public records law as a “battering ram.”
In Seattle, Schmitt requested records and communications since Jan. 1, 2019, between Starbird and dozens of federal officials, industry experts and cybersecurity organizations.
Starbird said she doesn’t know some of the officials he listed.
“It’s doesn’t make a lot of sense to me and it feels uncomfortable, about what kind of narratives they’re trying to push that motivated these requests or might come out of these requests,” she said.
Similar requests were filed by The Intercept, independent outlet Tech Inquiry and the nonprofit Government Accountability Project.
I asked Schmitt’s office for an interview and how this benefits Missouri but didn’t receive a response by my deadline.
A clue to his motivation might be a lawsuit he and Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry filed against the federal government “for allegedly colluding with social media giants to censor freedom of speech.”
Their lawsuit includes a catchall of topics for stirring up partisans, including Hunter Biden’s laptop, Anthony Fauci and mask mandates.
Perhaps the mountain of paper that Missouri taxpayers will spend thousands obtaining from Seattle and analyzing will clear things up, though the UW expects it will take until May 2023 to produce all the records.
Records may reveal problems. I’m all for scrutiny. But context will be needed.
Incidences of partisanship within a network of experts affecting policy are worth examining and may be problematic. But they must be weighed against the benefit of those experts collaborating, especially to identify ways social media is being manipulated to divide and weaken the country.
Starbird’s organization is among a group of private and public research groups that receive tips about misinformation, which they forward to tech companies to handle as they wish.
During the Trump administration, the federal government increased support of such programs.
After documenting how Russia used misinformation and other tactics to attack and undermine the U.S. election system, a Republican led Senate Intelligence Committee called for measures to counter such attacks by adversaries. It recommended information sharing among state and federal officials and independent analysis of threats on social media.
That program was authorized by a defense bill Missouri’s Republican senators voted for and Trump signed in 2019. I asked Schmitt’s office if he supports or opposes this work but haven’t heard back.
I’m writing about this for several reasons.
One is that the UW CIP’s work dovetails with this newspaper’s Save the Free Press initiative. The CIP just started contributing monthly columns; the first warned of minor election issues being blown out of proportion.
Starbird tweeted Oct. 6 about harassment prompted by her work surfacing via the Jan. 6 hearings. She noted that concurrent records requests were bogging down her work.
Harassment is unacceptable but public records requests are to be expected. Government transparency is essential to civic discourse.
It gets tricky when requests are voluminous. Hopefully requesters are judicious. Massive fishing expeditions can delay the release of timely information sought by others. They also provide fodder for those wanting to reduce public-records access.
I also believe the best antidote to online misinformation is saving the local press system. Local news outlets remain trusted information sources, with standards, corrections and editors vetting what gets published.
As local outlets shrivel, people turn to national outlets heavy on Beltway politics, cable shows stoking outrage, and the minefield of social media.
UW’s CIP and similar programs are in a way backfilling for the press, building new reporting tools to call out bogus information and bad actors.
I try not to be partisan but wonder if the dangerously anti-democracy types who attack the press as “fake news” are moving further afield, to discredit the next generation of truth-seekers calling out lies and distortions.
Fortunately, Starbird is undaunted. Harassment eased after she called it out online and received an outpouring of support.
“We’re just going to continue doing what we’re doing,” she said. “Right now I have a huge team so I perform as a lightning rod a little bit. That’s OK.”