When Kate Starbird got word that Missouri’s attorney general wanted her to turn over three years of her emails, she didn’t know what to think.
A Seattle-based professor at the University of Washington, Starbird co-founded the UW Center for an Informed Public, which researches misinformation online.
Why would an elected official 2,000 miles away be interested in her emails, she thought. Even more puzzling, Starbird says she doesn’t even know many of the dozens of people Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt is demanding she turn over communications with.
“For me,” Starbird said, “as a person who studies conspiracy theories, I was just trying to figure out what was the working conspiracy theory that he has for me and the work that I do.”
As it turns out, Starbird is caught up in one of the spate of lawsuits Schmitt has filed against the federal government.
Schmitt is seeking her emails as part of “ongoing research to aid in our lawsuit against the federal government for allegedly colluding with social media giants to suppress freedom of speech,” said Chris Nuelle, the attorney general’s spokesman.
Starbird was targeted because she serves on an advisory board for the federal government’s Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency.
Schmitt, who was elected to a seat in the U.S. Senate earlier this month, filed the lawsuit with Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry in May.
But while the lawsuit originally only involved the two states, Schmitt recently added new plaintiffs to the case — including someone Starbird’s organization knows well.
Jim Hoft, founder of the right-wing conspiracy website Gateway Pundit, was added to the case by the attorney general’s office along with four others in an Aug. 2 filing with the U.S. district court in Louisiana.
In an October filing by Schmitt’s office, Hoft is described as “one of the most influential online voices in the country” who suffered “extensive government-induced censorship” over issues like COVID-19 and election security.
In the nearly two decades since its founding, Hoft’s website has spread debunked conspiracies on a wide range of topics, from the 2018 Parkland school shooting to former President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. More recently, he’s helped proliferate lies about the brutal attack on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband and made false claims about U.S. aid money sent to Ukraine.
But his biggest focus in recent years has been promulgating lies about election fraud.
The Big Lie
Hoft was banned from Twitter last year after repeatedly promoting falsehoods about the 2020 presidential election. He is also in regular hot water with Facebook and YouTube.
Starbird’s organization has called Gateway Pundit a “hyperpartisan online news outlet that was perhaps the most influential ‘repeat spreader’ of misleading claims about the 2020 election.” Harvard University’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society said Gateway Pundit was in a “class of its own” for “publishing falsehoods and spreading hoaxes.”
Hoft’s penchant for spreading stolen election conspiracies has resulted in a pair of defamation lawsuits in the last year.
Two Georgia election workers targeted by former U.S. President Donald Trump in a vote-rigging conspiracy theory filed a defamation lawsuit in St. Louis Circuit Court against Hoft, alleging he helped spread false stories that incited death threats and harassment against them.
Hoft is also a defendant in a Colorado defamation lawsuit filed by an employee of Dominion Voting Systems who says he faced death threats after being baselessly accused of trying to rig the 2020 presidential election in favor of President Joe Biden.
Both lawsuits are still pending. And in both, Hoft is accused of continuing to spread false stories even after they’d been debunked.
Hoft did not respond to a request for comment.
But shortly after joining Schmitt’s lawsuit, Hoft boasted on his website about being the lead plaintiff, saying “we are excited to see our case presented by the Missouri and Louisiana attorneys general.”
Asked for comment on how Hoft became involved with the attorney general’s office, Nuelle said the litigation has “a number of private plaintiffs who have been censored by social media companies.”
“This lawsuit is about protecting free speech and exposing the federal government’s attempts to outsource their censorship to major social media companies,” Nuelle said. “That’s exactly what we’ve done, and what we will continue to do.”
Schmitt has scored a few procedural victories in his social media lawsuit of late, including Friday when a Louisiana judge refused to quash a subpoena issued to former White House press secretary Jen Psaki that seeks her deposition.
The government should never be permitted to censor private citizens, said Elad Gross, a government transparency advocate who ran as a Democrat for attorney general in 2020. If the alleged censorship occurred, Gross said, the government should be held accountable.
But Schmitt’s decision to align with Hoft undermines his credibility, Gross said.
“I’m not sure why Missouri’s attorney general decided to use taxpayer funds to represent Jim Hoft, a well-documented liar, whose mere presence in this case diminishes the plaintiffs’ arguments,” Gross said.
By adding Hoft to the case, Schmitt “has essentially normalized him,” said Michael Wolff, a former chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court.
‘Stop the steal’
Schmitt has his own history with Trump’s stolen election lies.
He was among a handful of GOP attorneys general who waged an unsuccessful legal fight to overturn results in battleground states won by Biden. The Supreme Court ultimately rejected their efforts.
He later drew criticism for his role as vice chair of the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA) when it was revealed it was involved in a robocall encouraging “patriots” to participate in the Jan. 6 march that ended in the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol.
“…we will march to the Capitol building and call on Congress to stop the steal,” the robocall said. “We are hoping patriots like you will join us to continue to fight to protect the integrity of our elections.”
Schmitt denied knowledge of the robocall or the fact that the Rule of Law Defense Fund, the 501(c)(4) arm of RAGA, helped finance and organize the march. The group also held a special “war games” meeting weeks before the election to discuss its strategies if Trump lost.
Emails between the Rule of Law Defense Fund and one of Schmitt’s top aides, Solicitor General John Sauer, were revealed last year through open records requests.
Starbird says she’s working to turn the requested records over to Schmitt’s office. Complicating matters, she’s also received a handful of other records requests, including from right-wing media organizations.
Schmitt will be gone from the AG’s office before the emails are turned over. He’ll be sworn into the U.S. Senate in January. Whoever Gov. Mike Parson appoints to replace him will ultimately get Starbird’s emails.
“It’s going to be a lot of work for me to give him a lot of information that has absolutely nothing to do with his claim,” Starbird said.
Her organization researches the problem of online myths and disinformation — and how that disinformation flows.
She said her colleagues’ work really began to get attention as people began trying to sort out what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, when a violent mob of insurrectionists inspired by lies of a stolen election stormed the U.S. Capitol in an effort to thwart the peaceful transfer of power from Trump to Biden.
“Our research is part of a larger story there,” Starbird said. “And I think it became, you know, something for folks who wanted to undermine that argument to try to delegitimize.”
And that’s her biggest concern: That her emails, taken out of context, will be weaponized to try to undermine the research being done.
“That’s the part that makes me sad,” she said, “because I know it’s going to be used to smear our reputation.”
Missouri Independent is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Missouri Independent maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jason Hancock for questions: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Missouri Independent on Facebook and Twitter.