Two years ago, we launched the Stanford Internet Observatory as a cross-disciplinary laboratory for the study of abuse in current information technologies, with a focus on the misuse of social media. The Observatory was created to learn about these abuses in real time and to translate our research discoveries into education for the next generation of engineers and entrepreneurs and into policy innovations for the public good. The term “Observatory” was not an accident: for centuries, physicists and astronomers have coordinated resources to build the massive technological infrastructure necessary to research the universe. The internet is similarly an ecosystem constantly in flux as new apps, emerging technologies, and new communities of users transform the space; researchers need innovative capabilities to research this new information frontier.
When we launched, we knew our work would be important because of the extent to which online activity increasingly shapes public perception of our society’s most important issues. We did not anticipate some of the specific forms this activity would take. The global pandemic moved human interaction from substantively online to near-completely online. As our team adapted to working from home, the spread of online information intensified: an organized marketing campaign to launch the conspiratorial “Plandemic” video; manipulation of livestreams to push fear during Black Lives Matter protests; global superpowers using health diplomacy as concerted soft power moves in the global south; and the 2020 US election, culminating in the unprecedented—although perhaps not unanticipated—Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021.
We launched on June 6, 2019, with an initial team of three and have since grown to a full-time team of 10, working with 76 student research assistants over the past two years. SIO’s success relies on the tireless efforts of the students and staff whose work is highlighted in the above report.
As we embark on our third year, we reflect deeply on our research and refine our path forward as a research center. In addition to highlighting the output of our team, this report details our focus areas and goals for the coming year.
We would like to extend our gratitude to our faculty leads Nate Persily and Dan Boneh at the Stanford Cyber Policy Center; Michael McFaul, the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute; and our generous supporters including Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Omidyar Network, the Charles Koch Foundation and Felicis Ventures.
The attached report shares the outputs of our research, teaching and policy work and highlights our new and refined goals as we move into our third year.