Court Rulings Signal Support to Protect Disinformation Researchers

March 29, 2024 | 9:22 am
Jennifer Jones
Program Director, Center for Science & Democracy

As billions of people vote in elections around the world in 2024, researchers and scientists are warning that disinformation around elections poses an unprecedented threat against democracy. Such scientists have been working for years to understand how bad actors willfully deceive people through false and misleading information, especially through social media platforms. Their work is essential for better understanding and reducing the harms that disinformation inflicts on our society, our health and well-being, and our democracy. 

In recent years, however, the community of researchers who study disinformation, hate speech, harassment and other online harms has been targeted by political actors who seek to silence the voices of scientists and researchers. The threat of lawsuits, harassment, and far-reaching congressional investigations have had a chilling effect on the field, with grave implications for us all.  

This week, a federal judge handed down an important ruling that will help protect researchers and scientists from political attack. The judge threw out a lawsuit by Elon Musk’s X (formerly known as Twitter) intended to squelch the ability of researchers to study and raise concerns around disinformation on online platforms. The lawsuit sought to silence researchers from the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH). In his decision, the judge called out the complaint as a blatant attempt to intimidate researchers. He also affirmed CCDH’s activities as protected – a huge signal of support for researchers and scientists.  

This ruling matters 

Researchers who study mis- and disinformation have been hit by everything from time-consuming litigation to death threats. Kate Starbird, professor at University of Washington and leader of a misinformation research group, has spoken out about the challenges of conducting research on mis- and disinformation in this hostile climate, a striking example of the chill that is felt by scientists and researchers who study everything from vaccines to climate change. In at least one instance, this threat has forced the cancellation of important public health communications research. Nevertheless, we have recently seen a few encouraging victories.  

The dismissal of this case comes on the heels of oral arguments in SCOTUS’s Murthy v. Missouri, where justices appeared skeptical of arguments accusing researchers of colluding with government officials to censor people online. Several justices’ questions in the hearing elevated the value of independent researchers sharing their expertise with both government officials and corporations. The original lawsuit (Missouri v. Biden), sought to also restrict scientists and researchers’ ability to communicate with not only the government, but with private companies as well, a demand so extreme that even the fifth circuit decided not to endorse it.  

The lawsuit against CCDH and the Murthy case illustrate a disturbing pattern of aggressive legal action aiming to silence researchers who investigate online platforms. These are not the only such cases that play fast and loose with the facts. In the just-dismissed case, despite claiming harm from CCDH’s reports running into the tens of millions of dollars worth of brand value, X never filed a defamation suit, indicating the weakness of the more suggestive claims outlined in the suit.  

The dismissal also explicitly recognizes CCDH’s methods as First Amendment-protected activities – a win for independent researchers. While X has said it will appeal, the judge did not allow them to amend their existing complaint specifically because the lawsuit is so evidently punitive.  

A damning indictment – and a win for scientists 

The opinion of the judge in this case is a damning indictment of those who try to limit the free speech of scientists and researchers investigating issues like hate speech and health misinformation online. In a challenging environment for this research, this outcome is a much-needed counter to the chill that this and similar lawsuits are imposing on important research.  

In a hotly-contested election year, the threat from online disinformation has real consequences, so research into this space is vital. It’s encouraging that this lawsuit failed, and we hope this outcome, along with other recent wins, will help protect the freedom of scientists and researchers to do their vital work.