Harassment, public record requests bombard UW truth seekers after Jan. 6 hearing appearance – The Seattle Times | Team Cansler

After a cameo appearance at the Jan. 6 hearings, a University of Washington professor was virtually assaulted by national media and a Missouri Senate nominee.

The situation offers a different perspective on the local journalism crisis and the underlying challenge of ensuring Americans continue to receive 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, which she is a part of, made a statement before the Jan. 6 committee.

Starbird and the CIP also received a series of public record requests, beginning with two on September 14 from conservative news site Daily Caller. It requested all communications between CIP, social media companies, and the Federal Agency for Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security.

Because CIP’s now 40-strong group of researchers and students work academically in, and sometimes with, the companies and have current and former students and family members and friends who work or practice in the companies, the query involves “thousands of diverse relationships.” said Starbird.

“The requests are so large that they will move very slowly unless the requesters are more specific in what they are looking for,” she said.

Two weeks later, a sweeping request followed from Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who sided with former President Donald Trump in his failed and court-rejected efforts to overthrow the will of the people in the 2020 presidential election.

As a Republican running for the US Senate, Schmitt continues to stir up doubts about the US electoral system, for example speaking on his campaign page of “blatant illegal actions related to our sacred elections” in 2020.

Schmitt went on a similar fishing expedition at the University of Missouri in June, searching for emails between journalism professors and the director of nonprofit fact-checker PolitiFact after three years. A press association lawyer told The Associated Press that Schmitt was using the Public Records Act as a “battering ram.”

In Seattle, since January 1, 2019, Schmitt requested records and communications between Starbird and dozens of federal officials, industry experts, and cybersecurity organizations.

Starbird said she doesn’t know some of the officers he listed.

“It doesn’t make a lot of sense to me and it feels awkward what kind of narratives they’re trying to push that might have motivated those requests or might have come out of those requests,” she said.

Similar inquiries have been submitted by The Intercept, the independent Outlet Tech Inquiry and the non-profit Government Accountability Project.

I asked Schmitt’s office for an interview and how Missouri is benefiting, but received no response by my deadline.

A clue to his motivation may be a lawsuit he and Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry have filed against the federal government “for allegedly colluding with social media giants to censor free speech.”

Her lawsuit covers a range of issues to incite partisans, including Hunter Biden’s laptop, Anthony Fauci and mask mandates.

Perhaps the mountain of paper that Missouri taxpayers will spend thousands to get from Seattle and analyze will clear things up, although the UW expects it will take until May 2023 to complete all the records.

Records can reveal problems. I am for a close examination. But context is needed.

Incidents of partisanship within a network of experts that affect policy are worth investigating and can be problematic. But they must be weighed against the usefulness of the experts working together, particularly 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 leads on misinformation, which they relay to tech companies to deal with as they see fit.

During the Trump administration, the federal government increased support for such programs.

After a Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee documented how Russia used misinformation and other tactics to attack and subvert the US electoral system, it called for action to counter such attacks by adversaries. It recommended sharing information between state and federal officials and independent analysis of social media threats.

This program was authorized by a defense bill voted for by Missouri Republican senators and signed by Trump in 2019. I have asked Schmitt’s office whether he supports or opposes this work, but have received no response.

I am writing about this for several reasons.

One is that the work of the UW CIP is dovetailed with that newspaper’s Save the Free Press initiative. The CIP has just started contributing monthly columns; The first warned that minor electoral issues would be disproportionately inflated.

Starbird tweeted on Oct. 6 about harassment sparked by her work, which surfaced at the Jan. 6 hearings. She found that simultaneous requests for records slowed down her work.

Harassment is unacceptable, but public record requests are expected. Government transparency is essential for civil society discourse.

It becomes difficult with extensive inquiries. Hopefully the requesters are reasonable. Massive fishing expeditions can delay the timely release of information requested by others. They also provide fodder for those who want to restrict access to public records.

I also believe that the best antidote to online misinformation is to save the local press system. Local news outlets remain trusted sources of information, with standards, proofreaders, and editors checking what gets published.

As local outlets shrink, people are turning to national outlets, hit hard by Beltway politics, cable shows fueling outrage, and the social media minefield.

UW’s CIP and similar programs are to some extent padding the press by developing new reporting tools to denounce misinformation and bad actors.

I try not to be partisan, but wonder if the dangerously anti-democratic types who attack the press as “fake news” are moving further away to discredit the next generation of truth-seekers who challenge lies and distortions.

Thankfully, Starbird is fearless. The harassment subsided after it was pointed out online and received a wave of support.

“We’re just going to keep doing what we’re doing,” she said. “Right now I have a huge team, so I act as a bit of a lightning rod. That’s okay.”

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