Did Stanford Try to Whitewash its Involvement in an Anti-Black, Misinformation-Filled Research Project?

The Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society (PACS) has quietly deleted a research project from its website after questions surfaced about the project’s legitimacy.

The research initiative, Disinformation Creep: How Breaking News Stories are Used to Engage in Online Voter Suppression, was undertaken by PACS Practitioner Fellow Mutale Nkonde at Stanford’s DigitalCivilSociety Lab in 2019. It falsely alleges that the American Descendants of Slavery (ADOS) movement uses social media to spread disinformation intended to foster apathy and cynicism among the Black Democratic electorate. Stanford PACS has also discreetly removed any mention of the research initiative from Nkonde’s bio page.

Nkonde’s bio on Stanford PACS’s website previously included links to her “Disinformation Creep” research project.
All previous evidence of Stanford PACS’s connection with the “Disinformation Creep” research project has been scrubbed from its website and Nkonde’s bio. A Google search for Stanford PACS and “Disinformation Creep” brings up a link that leads to a “Page Not Found” error.

Stanford’s hushed expungement of the material came immediately after inquiries were made by the ADOS Advocacy Foundation to the lab’s research director, Lucy Bernholz, about whether or not Nkonde’s project (which admits to having received significant financial and authorial support from prominent liberal political action committee MoveOn.org) violated the terms of eligibility set forth in the Stanford PACS Practitioner Fellowship guidelines. The guidelines clearly state that a fellow’s research project “cannot involve a partisan political campaign or legislative lobbying efforts.”

However, prior to and during the period of Nkonde’s research, MoveOn.org coordinated multiple fundraising campaigns to “stop disinformation and online voter suppression.” The express aim of those efforts — which were part of a broader $49.8 million fundraising venture in the 2019–2020 election cycle — was to get the donations into Democratic Party coffers. Indeed, since MoveOn.org’s formation in 1998, their organization has consistently ranked among the top contributors to Democratic Party election campaigns. And so far in 2021, MoveOn.org has spent $20,000 on lobbying efforts. It is also worth noting that in September of 2020 MoveOn.org campaign manager and Disinformation creep co-author Mary Drummer announced that the organization was taking “extra precaution” and “removing petitions referencing ADOS from [its] platform” due to “concern about messages being co-opted” (i.e. disinformation).

Bernholz did not respond to the ADOS Advocacy Foundation’s requests for clarification on the matter, but the furtive removal of the material in question would appear to tacitly confirm that Nkonde’s collaboration with MoveOn.org constituted a clear breach of the center’s policy of keeping a political agenda out of scientific research.

Mutale Nkonde’s research initiative, which was ultimately published in Misinformation Review at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, has been met with sharp criticism from both ADOS activists and members of the journal’s own editorial board. The latter have publicly stated that — had they prior knowledge of Misinformation Review’s intent to publish the article—they would have “recommended rejecting the piece.” Presently, “Disinformation creep” is undergoing a post-publication review by Misinformation Review editorial staff—a staff that has heretofore completely refused to engage with ADOS activists who dispute the article’s many unfounded claims and allegations.

Stanford’s recent actions appear to only give credence to those activists’ assertions that the article is deeply flawed methodologically and predicated solely on the researchers’ own biased assumptions of #ADOS being a political adversary. More than that, the university’s actions suggest that Nkonde’s research project should have never been authorized in the first place. They suggest that the stipend and grant funding that supported Nkonde’s research was either deceitfully secured or knowingly and wrongfully disbursed by grant agencies, philanthropic donations, and the host institution.

As such, the ADOS Advocacy Foundation is calling on the PACS Advisory Board to demand an institutional investigation into the matter and determine whether the financial involvement of an influential liberal advocacy group in a research project at its lab violated the declared terms of that project’s eligibility. And if (as it certainly seems) blatant misconduct did occur with “Disinformation Creep”, then leadership at Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society and the DigitalCivilSociety Lab must be held accountable for financing a project that, by their own criteria, lacked the necessary impartiality. Lucy Bernholz, as research director, cannot expect to simply quietly cover up an apparent compliance breach and avoid culpability for the dishonest and impermissible research taking place under her roof.

We further urge the 15-member advisory board add their signatures to our petition demanding that Misinformation Review issue a full retraction of “Disinformation creep,” along with a formal apology to the ADOS Advocacy Foundation for the article’s defamatory nature. The Board should exhort the leadership at PACS and the DigitalCivilSociety Lab to do the same, as the Center possesses the utterly shameful distinction of serving as the genesis for a research project that has baselessly vilified a grassroots reparations movement under the guise of scientific inquiry. Worse still is that the report — which casually introduces misinformation into the public sphere — appears to have been illicitly conceived and developed.

If the Advisory Board fails to make the appropriate recommendations for Stanford’s PACS and DigitalCivilSociety leadership to meaningfully address the concerns of ethical violations, then they will fail in their most basic duty of ensuring the integrity of their research institute. The clandestine actions of Lucy Bernholz already indicate blameworthiness. It is now up to the Advisory Board to determine how much more credibility their research center will bleed.