Stanford files amicus brief in Murthy v. Missouri pending before U.S. Supreme Court

stanford dish at sunset

On December 26, 2023, Stanford University filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court of the United States to correct false allegations made about the university and the Stanford Internet Observatory (SIO) in a lawsuit filed by the states of Missouri and Louisiana against the Biden Administration. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit seek to cast Stanford, a private research university, and its academic researchers as government actors subject to First Amendment restrictions simply because they communicated with the federal government about their research on information on the Internet relating to the 2020 election and the COVID-19 vaccine.

Stanford’s amicus brief argues that Stanford and other academic institutions have a First Amendment right to conduct research and communicate their findings – including to the government – and that universities do not become government actors by engaging with the government about their research.

In September, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals recognized Stanford’s right under the First Amendment to express its views about this research, reversing an order by the district court in Louisiana prohibiting Stanford from “working” with the government. Even after plaintiffs requested a rehearing to affirm the injunction against Stanford, the SIO and two of its projects, the court of appeals declined to do so. This is the matter now under review by the Supreme Court of the United States. 

Academic institutions engage with the government on many matters and they communicate their research and their views to the government and the press every day. Universities like Stanford operate government-owned and funded laboratories that research everything from particle physics to new vaccines to crop yields to nuclear energy. Government officials give lectures and participate in panel discussions at universities, and academics and researchers likewise present their research and findings to government officials. Students regularly complete university-funded internships at government agencies.

The ability of academic research programs to speak freely with government actors in particular is vital to their work. It allows them to disseminate valuable research findings to policymakers and apply academic expertise to real-world problems. Moreover, non-governmental institutions are often best able to apply cutting-edge research and technology to respond to emergent challenges. The open exchange of ideas between academic institutions and government allows for a diversity of perspectives and approaches in addressing complex challenges. It promotes effective and evidence-based policymaking. And it provides unique educational opportunities for students to gain valuable practical experience and prepare for future careers in these areas of critical importance.

Stanford will continue to defend its First Amendment rights – including those of its faculty, staff and students, who are free to investigate all manner of subjects, free to collaborate with other scholars and organizations, and free to communicate their findings to the public, to private enterprise and to the government. Stanford has the right to fulfill its mission to educate its students, contribute to the public good and address today’s most pressing societal challenges, like the integrity of U.S. elections and public-health responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Correcting the Record

In connection with this filing, Stanford and the SIO are taking the opportunity to publicly address the continued promotion of false, inaccurate, misleading and manufactured claims regarding the university and SIO’s role in researching and analyzing social media content about U.S. elections and the COVID-19 vaccine in particular. 

Stanford remains deeply concerned about efforts, including these lawsuits and related congressional investigations, that chill freedom of inquiry and undermine legitimate and much needed academic research – both at Stanford and across academia. The SIO will continue to conduct research on influence operations, including exploration of associated risks and threats. 



The SIO, in collaboration with the federal government, pressured social media companies to censor true information, jokes and political opinions.At no time did Stanford, the SIO or any of its projects including the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP) or Virality Project (VP) ever censor speech or call for the censorship of speech. Nor did EIP or VP ever take down social media posts or apply labels to posts or have any power to do so. Indeed, very little of the EIP and VP’s time was spent interacting with social media platforms or the government in any capacity.
The EIP and VP were specifically designed to to censor online content.

The EIP and VP were designed to conduct academic research into influence operations, including exploration of associated risks and threats that may emerge. This work included identifying false narratives and countering or contextualizing them in public reports, blogposts, and social-media posts – classic counter-speech. 

Most importantly, social media platforms treated notifications of violative content from the EIP and VP as simply that: notifications, which they were free to – and most often did – ignore. In this regard, the EIP and VP’s limited interactions with social media platforms are no different than professors and students writing letters to the editor demanding retractions or corrections. Such interactions do not violate anyone’s First Amendment rights. Indeed, they are protected by the First Amendment: The letter writer has a First Amendment right to write the letter, and the editor has a First Amendment right to act (or not) on the request.

Simply put, the EIP and VP’s speech to social media platforms about content on those platforms is not censorship; it is protected speech on matters of utmost public concern. Such conduct is “core political speech” for which “the importance of First Amendment protections is at its zenith.” (Meyer v. Grant, 486 U.S. 414, 422, 425 (1988).)

The SIO, EIP and VP censored conservatives.

The EIP and VP identified violative content – information circulating on the Internet that appeared to violate the social media companies’ posted policies or that otherwise contained false or misleading information on the Internet relating to U.S. elections and COVID-19 vaccines – posted by both Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives, and foreign actors. As documented in the EIP’s final report on the 2020 election, prominent social media accounts that supported then-President Trump’s inaccurate assertions about the election made more false statements than other accounts across the political spectrum. 

But even when the EIP and VP flagged violative content to the platforms (just as numerous individuals do every day), the platforms – not the EIP or VP – always exercised ultimate control over their policies and content-moderation decisions.

The EIP and/or VP was created at the request of CISA/DHS in order to bypass the First Amendment and launder censorship activities.

Neither CISA nor DHS had any involvement in the creation the EIP or the VP. Instead, the EIP was created in the summer of 2020 at the initiative of SIO Director Alex Stamos to analyze information on the Internet relating to the 2020 election. The Department of Homeland Security’s Cybersecurity & Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), which was signed into law and established by former President Trump in 2018, was headed by an appointee of former President Trump in 2020, and did not ask SIO to create the EIP or the VP.

The record demonstrates that CISA’s actual arms-length relationship with Stanford – which was similar to CISA’s relationships with many academic institutions (C.A. ROA 13248-49) – was entirely normal and entirely above board.

The EIP worked directly with DHS or otherwise facilitated the monitoring and censoring of Americans’ political speech online in advance of the 2020 presidential election.


The EIP did not censor information on the Internet, and had no power to do so. Rather, it identified and analyzed false or misleading information included in public social media posts and provided its findings to multiple entities, including the social media companies whose platforms hosted the content in question. The social media companies were solely responsible for deciding what, if any, action to take with respect to content moderation or removal of posts. As extensively documented in the EIP’s final report on the 2020 election, social media platforms took action on a minority – 35 percent – of the URLs reported to them by the EIP, typically applying a label pointing to authoritative sources of election information. No action was taken on 65 percent. The EIP’s reporting role in no way constituted “censorship.”
The EIP censored 22 million tweets and labeled them as “misinformation.”

Twenty-two million is the number of total tweets that mentioned one of the ten most viral narratives tracked by the EIP for the duration of the election cycle (e.g., online commentary related to “Dominion,”) and was calculated by the EIP only after the 2020 election. 

The actual number of posts that EIP flagged, as transparently stated in its public 2021 report, was 4,784 unique original URLS. Social media platforms were solely responsible for deciding what, if any, action to take with respect to content moderation, or removal of posts.

The VP censored social media content regarding COVID-19 vaccine side effects.The VP did not censor information on the Internet, and had no power to do so. Rather, the VP’s work focused on conducting misinformation trend analyses and enabling awareness of vaccine conversations circulating online.
The VP acted at the request of government agencies to eliminate or censor content online.The VP conducted its own independent analyses of prospective inaccurate information relating to COVID-19 vaccines. The social media companies were solely responsible for deciding what, if any, action to take with respect to content moderation, or removal of posts.
The EIP and VP received funding from the federal government to censor information relating to the 2020 election and COVID-19 vaccine.The SIO, EIP and VP did not censor any information and had no power to do so.  Moreover, they received no money from the federal government for research relating to the 2020 election or COVID-19 vaccine. The SIO was awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation in 2021 for research on disinformation, but these funds were not disbursed to Stanford until 2022.

 About the Stanford Internet Observatory

The SIO is a non-partisan, cross-disciplinary program of research, teaching and policy engagement related to abuse in current information technologies, with a focus on social media. It studies and publishes about online influence operations, and conducts and publishes research regarding child internet safety, online platforms’ policies, emerging technologies such as generative AI, and trust and safety.

About the Election Integrity Partnership and Virality Project

The SIO is one of four organizations that convened the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP) and Virality Project (VP) in 2020 and 2021 respectively, along with: the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public; the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab; and the social media analytics firm Graphika. Both the EIP and VP were research projects, not political advocacy projects. They were undertaken to research and analyze false or misleading information circulating on the Internet related to U.S. elections and COVID-19 vaccines. They operated in an open, transparent and public manner, publishing blog postsweekly updatesbriefing videosacademic papers and voluminous investigative reports during the course of their academic research. 

This research was conducted primarily by Stanford undergraduate and graduate students pursuant to standard research protocols and with supervision by SIO staff. The students were clearly instructed that partisan political issues or candidates were outside the scope of the projects. Stanford students and SIO staff participating in the projects notified social media companies about information circulating on the Internet that appeared to violate the companies’ posted policies or that otherwise contained false or misleading information on the Internet relating to U.S. elections and COVID-19 vaccines. 

The EIP focused its research on false or misleading information that might suppress voting, reduce voter participation, confuse voters about election processes or delegitimize election results without evidence; it did not analyze policy statements by political candidates. Stanford students and staff identified false or misleading content posted by progressives and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans; they did not discriminate on a partisan or viewpoint basis.

The VP focused its research on viral narratives related to COVID-19 vaccines in the areas of: safety; efficacy and necessity; development and distribution; and conspiracy theories. Its primary goal was to facilitate awareness for public health officials and medical professionals seeking to communicate accurate information to the public.

Read More


Research can help to tackle AI-generated disinformation

New work in Nature Human Behaviour from SIO researchers, with other co-authors looks at how generative artificial intelligence (AI) tools have made it easy to create realistic disinformation that is hard to detect by humans and may undermine public trust.
cover link Research can help to tackle AI-generated disinformation
a stack of magazines from the journal nature

Users choose to engage with more partisan news than they are exposed to on Google Search

New work in the journal Nature looks at the real effect of "filter bubble's" on users' web browsing behavior.
cover link Users choose to engage with more partisan news than they are exposed to on Google Search