She thought she was doing the right thing, tracking down the source of deadly lies that killed a half-million Americans and almost led to the overthrow of the US government.
Little did she know that the very people whose behavior she was studying would use the power of government to try to destroy her work, funding, and even her personal life and reputation.
University of Washington disinformation researcher Kate Starbird learned the hard way: according to The Washington Post she’s been sued — along with multiple other disinformation-studying academics — by groups, sites, and people who are, in many cases, affiliated with some of the more prolific purveyors of disinformation on the web.
Meanwhile, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jim Jordan is using the awesome power of the state to threaten disinformation researchers with jail if they don’t drop what they’re doing and submit to onerous subpoenas for correspondence and testimony.
These demands cost them time and money while elevating them into the crosshairs of rightwing trolls and lone-wolf stochastic terrorists.
How and why is this happening?
The “party of ideas” has abandoned that quaint sobriquet from the Reagan and Paul Ryan eras, replacing it with a vigorous embrace of pure lies:
— The 2020 election was stolen.
— Voter fraud by Black people is rampant and must be stopped.
— Climate change is not caused by fossil fuels.
— Gays, lesbians, and trans people want to “convert” your kids.
— Public school teachers are part of a union-based communist conspiracy.
— Cutting billionaire taxes helps working class people.
— Teaching American history injures white children.
— Covid is like the flu and the vaccine is dangerous.
— Expanding Medicare or regulating Big Pharma will break our healthcare system.
— Russia didn’t help Trump.
— The media has a liberal bias.
— Public schools have failed.
— Abortions and birth control cause cancer, infertility, and regret.
— January 6th wasn’t a traitorous coup attempt.
Little mini-industries are devoted to each of these lies, building profitable niches in the rightwing ecosystem both online and in political spaces.
Often funded by democracy-skeptical rightwing billionaires and online donations from Republican grassroots followers, their messages are amplified by social media algorithms because their very outrageousness increases the screen time they produce.
The lies and misinformation industry really took off with the 2016 presidential campaign, and the academic effort to study it began at the same time, when it was revealed that Russia was using Facebook and Twitter to push anti-Hillary and pro-Trump propaganda.
Since then, people and organizations generating and spreading these lies have moved into public health via Covid and used deception and faux grass-roots groups to go after voting rights and public education with a vengeance.
And they very much do not like being called out for the lies and misinformation they generate and spread.
Most people would rather be punched in the face than served with a subpoena demanding 8 years of correspondence, including notes that may be highly personal, that can then be aired in public by grandstanding politicians.
In addition to the embarrassment, the attorneys’ costs alone can break a middle class person. And being named or dragged before a congressional committee puts a bulls-eye on a person’s back, sometimes leading to death threats, vandalism of their home, swatting attempts, and actual break-ins and physical violence.
There’s a word for this: fascism.
The essence of fascism is intimidation. It stops resistance, stifles opposition, and causes the fearful and desperate to cooperate. It scares off both researchers, reporters, and opinion writers.
As William Shirer, the historian who lived in Germany during the early years of Hitler’s rise to power, wrote in his seminal Rise and Fall of the Third Reich:
“In Nazi parlance, ‘educated’ meant ‘intimidated’— to a point where all would accept docilely the Nazi dictatorship and its barbarism.”
In that context, the MAGA wing of the GOP is devoted to “education.”
And they can pull off their intimidation without fear of lawsuits or other consequences: Jim Jordan, as a member of Congress, enjoys the same near-total immunity from accountability that Senator Joseph McCarthy famously used to destroy thousands of innocent lives in the 1950s.
In Article 6 of the Constitution — the “Speech and Debate Clause” — it says:
“They [Members of Congress] shall in all Cases, except Treason, Felony and Breach of the Peace, be privileged from Arrest during their Attendance at the Session of their respective Houses, and in going to and returning from the same; and for any Speech or Debate in either House, they shall not be questioned in any other Place.”
Jordan’s committee has been busy using their power to intimidate — and even break — researchers and reporters in an apparent effort to destroy their ability to conduct their work. And if that’s their goal, it’s working.
As The Washington Post reported earlier this month:
“The pressure has forced some researchers to change their approach or step back, even as disinformation is rising ahead of the 2024 election. …
“The deluge of bad information about disinformation researchers’ work also has led to a torrent of digital harassment, threats and smears. …
“‘The political part is intimidating — to have people with a lot of power in this world making false claims, false accusations about our work,’ Starbird said.”
She deleted her Twitter account, which had roughly 50,000 followers, and has largely quit doing media or public appearances. After testifying as a disinformation expert to the January 6th committee, her employer was flooded with lawsuits for her correspondence and she was warned that, as the Post noted, “they knew where she lived.”
And Jordan and his peers aren’t just going after high-profile researchers and universities.
While their most well-known targets have included Stanford, Clemson, NYU, University of Washington, the German Marshall Fund, the National Conference on Citizenship, the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, The Atlantic Council, the Virality Project, and the Election Integrity Partnership, their apparent intimidation efforts reach all the way down to students, volunteers, and tipsters.
One professor asked the Post to keep his name out of the story about Jordan’s harassment, “citing concerns for his family’s safety.” A professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill told the Post that this activity “wasn’t something we saw until a few years ago.”
Republican efforts to stop any person or institution who points out the lies, fabrications, and misinformation they depend on to win elections have gone into hyperdrive.
The quaint old Reagan lies about “union bosses” and “supply-side economics” aren’t enough to keep the rubes in line anymore, so the GOP has now adopted Steve Bannon’s famous strategy.
As he told reporter Michael Lewis:
“The Democrats don’t matter. The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.”
Bannon later added:
“This is not about persuasion: This is about disorientation.”
But don’t you dare call them on it. If you do, there will be a huge price to pay and you’ll deeply regret having ever taken on the job of exposing the Republican lie and spin machine.
As The New York Times, in an article titled GOP Targets Researchers Who Study Disinformation Ahead of 2024 Election, noted:
“[Researchers] face mounting legal costs and questions from directors and donors about the risks raised by studying disinformation. Online attacks have also taken a toll on morale and, in some cases, scared away students.”
This is, of course, the goal of Jordan’s efforts.
A man who was deeply entangled with Trump’s efforts to overthrow our form of government but appears to have escaped scrutiny by virtue of Merrick Garland’s timidity, Jordan’s threats appear designed to prevent any serious challenges to his power or to the lies the GOP depends on for electoral success.
“Whether directly or indirectly,” Jordan wrote without a trace of irony or self-consciousness, “a government-approved or -facilitated censorship regime is a grave threat to the First Amendment and American civil liberties.”
Tell us about it.