She Warned of ‘Peer-to-Peer Misinformation.’ Congress Listened.
In 2016, they monitored thousands of Twitter accounts that suddenly started using bots, or automated accounts, to spread salacious stories about the Clinton family. They watched as multiple Facebook pages, appearing out of nowhere, organized to simultaneously create anti-immigrant events. Nearly all of those watching were hobbyists, logging countless hours outside their day jobs.
“When I put it all together and started mapping it out, I saw how big the scale of it was,” said Jonathan Albright, who met Ms. DiResta through Twitter. Mr. Albright published a widely read report that mapped, for the first time, connections between conservative sites putting out fake news. He did the research as a “second job” outside his position as research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University.
Senate and House staff members, who knew of Ms. DiResta’s expertise through her public reports and her previous work advising the Obama administration on disinformation campaigns, had contacted her and others to help them prepare for the hearings.
Rachel Cohen, a spokeswoman for Senator Mark Warner, Democrat of Virginia, said in a statement that researchers like Ms. DiResta had shown real insight into the platforms, “in many cases, despite efforts by some of the platforms to undermine their research.” Mr. Warner is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
One crucial line of the questioning — on how much influence Russian-bought advertisements and content had on users — was the result of work by Ms. DiResta and others with a Facebook-owned tool. “Facebook has the tools to monitor how far this content is spreading,” Ms. DiResta said. “The numbers they were originally providing were trying to minimize it.”
Indeed, at the congressional hearings, the tech companies admitted that the problem was far larger than they had originally said. Last year, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, said it was a “crazy idea” that misinformation on Facebook influenced the election. But the company acknowledged to Congress that more than 150 million users of its main site and a subsidiary, Instagram, potentially saw inflammatory political ads bought by a Kremlin-linked company, the Internet Research Agency.
Ms. DiResta contended that that is still just the tip of the iceberg. Minimizing the scope of the problem was “a naïve form of damage control,” she said. “This isn’t about punishing Facebook or Twitter. This is us saying, this is important and we can do better.”
In response, Facebook said it had begun organizing academic discussions on disinformation.
“We regularly engage with dozens of sociologists, political scientists, data scientists and communications scholars, and we both read and incorporate their findings into our work,” said Jay Nancarrow, a Facebook spokesman. “We value the work of researchers, and we are going to continue to work with them closely.”