An election box in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler)

As the presidential campaign was heating up four years ago, the University of Washington and Stanford University led a nonpartisan cohort that monitored and publicized in real time their research on the spread of political misinformation and disinformation online.

As this year’s presidential race unfolds — with heightened concerns around political rumors and false narratives — the watchdog group is no longer active and the Stanford program that participated in it is “dismantling,” according to a report this week from tech news site Platformer.

But researchers with the UW’s Center for an Informed Public (CIP) say they’re committed to continuing their efforts.

“Our UW team has been doing research on online rumors and disinformation campaigns for over a decade, and that work will continue. In particular, we are currently conducting and plan to continue our ‘rapid’ research — working to identify and rapidly communicate about emergent rumors — during the 2024 election,” said Kate Starbird, co-founder and faculty director of the CIP, by email.

The CIP, which launched in 2019, has a team of about 20 researchers currently working on the issue, Starbird said.

The UW and Stanford have been targeted by lawsuits from conservative groups and efforts by Republican leaders to discredit their work.

Platformer linked these attacks to the decision to reportedly wind down the Stanford Internet Observatory, noting the recent departures of key leaders. University officials dispute the assertion that the group is shutting down.

Kate Starbird, faculty director of the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public, speaks at the 2021 GeekWire Summit. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

The former coalition led by the two universities was called the Election Integrity Partnership and also included the Digital Forensic Research Lab, and Graphika, a social media analytics firm. The partnership tracked the 2020 election and its aftermath and stopped operating after the 2022 election wrapped up.

The partnership’s work was “focused on a narrow scope of topics that were demonstrably harmful to the democratic process: attempts to suppress voting, reduce participation, confuse voters, or delegitimize election results without evidence. We were interested in these dynamics both during the election cycle as well as after the election,” states the group’s website.

The right-wing activist group Project Veritas in 2021 filed a defamation lawsuit against the UW and Stanford over a blog post from the partnership that alleged the Project Veritas had promoted election disinformation. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit in 2022.

Another lawsuit filed last year, alleging censorship of Americans’ speech, targeted specific leaders at Stanford and the UW that were part of the Election Integrity Partnership.

Renée DiResta, technical research manager of the Stanford Internet Observatory, has left her role, according to Platformer. DiResta had previously joined the scientific advisory board for TrueMedia, a new Seattle-based organization detecting political deepfake videos, photos and audio led by Oren Etzioni, a UW professor and former CEO of the Allen Institute for AI. Jevin West, director of the CIP, is also on the TrueMedia advisory board.

The CIP’s Starbird last week was awarded the UW’s prestigious 2024 University Faculty Lecture Award, which is given in recognition of a faculty member’s impacts on their profession and society in general.

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