A prominent disinformation scholar who left Harvard University in August has accused the school of muzzling her speech and stifling — then dismantling — her research team as it launched a deep dive in late 2021 into a trove of Facebook files she considers the most important documents in internet history.
The actions impacting Joan Donovan’s work coincided with a $500 million donation to Harvard by a foundation run by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. In a whistleblower disclosure made public Monday, Donovan seeks investigations into “inappropriate influence” from Harvard’s general counsel, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office and the U.S. Department of Education.
The CEO of Whisteblower Aid, a legal nonprofit supporting Donovan, called the alleged behavior by Harvard’s Kennedy School and its dean a “shocking betrayal” of academic integrity at the elite school.
“Whether Harvard acted at the company’s direction or took the initiative on their own to protect (Facebook’s) interests, the outcome is the same: corporate interests are undermining research and academic freedom to the detriment of the public,” CEO Libby Liu said in a press statement.
In response, the Kennedy School rejected the disclosure’s allegations of unfair treatment and donor interference. “The narrative is full of inaccuracies and baseless insinuations, particularly the suggestion that Harvard Kennedy School allowed Facebook to dictate its approach to research,” spokesman James F. Smith said in a statement.
The Whistleblower Aid statement quotes Donovan accusing Dean Douglas Elmendorf of subjecting her team to “death by a thousand cuts” after she began making robust plans in October 2021 to create a research clearinghouse for the so-called Facebook Files, which were gathered by former employee Frances Haugen to highlight public harms.
Following the disclosures, Zuckerberg changed Facebook’s name to Meta.
Despite the company’s public stance that Haugen was blowing internal research out of proportion, Donovan and other independent researchers considered the documents confirmation that Facebook’s design had radicalized people, its algorithms fomenting racial animosity, encouraging ethnic cleansing and damaging teen mental health.
“I believed, honestly, that these were the most important documents in internet history,” Donovan said in an interview Monday. “Our role as academics is not to play favorites. It’s not to do P.R. It’s to tell the truth, no matter how uncomfortable it makes us. And unfortunately, I lost my job for it.”
Donovan claimed Elmendorf “made it so that I couldn’t hire and I couldn’t start doing projects,” halting her fundraising, barring her from holding conferences with more than 30 attendees, and preventing her from launching “a podcast because he didn’t want to, quote unquote, raise my public profile.” She said that led her to halt media interviews and publish opinion pieces.
“Our plan was to go at the elections in 2024,” Donovan said. “I had raised. $4.5 million at one point so that we could do our work through 2024.”
Donovan said that after her contract was cut short, she refused a severance package because she felt she would be complicit “if I were to take in a payoff for my silence.”
Harvard hired Donovan, now an assistant professor at Boston University, in 2018, where she led the Technology and Social Change Research Project. In May 2020, she was promoted to research director of the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, where she lectured.
In its statement, the Kennedy School denied that Donovan was fired. It said she was a staff member — not a faculty member — and all research projects at the school must be led by faculty members. The school “tried for some time to identify another faculty member who had time and interest to lead the project. After that effort did not succeed, the project was given more than a year to wind down” and most members of the research team remained in research roles.
Donovan said she was not aware of any search for someone to take over as head of the research project, which she founded and for which she said she had raised $12 million.
In its statement, The Kennedy School said it “did not receive any portion of the Chan-Zuckerberg gift,” which went to Harvard University for an unrelated artificial intelligence initiative.
Both Chan and Zuckerberg went to Harvard, where Facebook was first launched.
Harvard ultimately did release an archive of the Facebook Files though Donovan said it was considerably less ambitious and open than she envisioned.
Meta was consulted on redactions to the roughly 20,000 images in that archive and the Kennedy School team managing it decided to make about 160 of the more than 800 redactions requested by the company — in nearly every case to remove the name of low-level Meta employees or outside people for privacy reasons, Smith said. He added that the Kennedy School’s Public Interest Tech Lab gave researchers early access to the archive in May 2023 and it became more fully public in October.
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