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Misinformation Expert Joan Donovan Calls for Investigation Into HKS, Alleging Influence by Donors Tied to Meta

Misinformation expert Joan M. Donovan led the Technology and Social Change project at the Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy until the school ended her project by August 2023.
Misinformation expert Joan M. Donovan led the Technology and Social Change project at the Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy until the school ended her project by August 2023. By Ben Y. Cammarata
By Asher J. Montgomery, Crimson Staff Writer

Misinformation expert Joan M. Donovan called for an investigation into the Harvard Kennedy School, alleging that the school terminated her project at the school and pressured her to leave under the influence of donors with ties to Meta.

In a 248-page disclosure by nonprofit legal group Whistleblower Aid last week, Donovan alleged that Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf targeted Donovan and her team “to protect the interests of high value donors with obvious and direct ties to Meta/Facebook.”

The Kennedy School leadership aimed to “diminish — if not destroy — their research and public engagement despite the ample funding raised by Dr. Donovan, which still resides in Harvard University’s bank account,” the disclosure alleged.

Donovan’s attorneys at Whistleblower Aid, Andrew P. Bakaj and Kyle Gardiner, submitted the disclosure, dated Nov. 28, to Harvard President Claudine Gay, University Vice President and General Counsel Diane E. Lopez, Secretary of Education Miguel A. Cardona, and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office.

University spokesperson Jason A. Newton confirmed that Gay received the disclosure but did not comment further. HKS spokesperson James F. Smith wrote in a statement that the disclosure’s claims of “unfair treatment and donor interference are false.”

Meta and the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The U.S. Department of Education declined to comment, stating that the Office for Civil Rights does not confirm complaints.

Donovan’s forced exit from the Kennedy School, first reported by The Crimson, came after the school informed her last fall that it would be “winding down” the Technology and Social Change project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy that she helmed by summer 2024 — a decision that prompted more than 100 Harvard affiliates to call for Elmendorf’s resignation.

Smith told The Crimson in February that the decision was made because the project lacked “intellectual and academic leadership by a full HKS faculty member” — a school-wide requirement.

Donovan rebutted this explanation in a declaration submitted alongside the Whistleblower Aid disclosure, writing that she was never told of such a requirement when she was hired and that “exceptions to this general rule are routinely granted at Harvard, which was true in my case.”

“While I was hired as the TASC project director in 2018 and was promoted to research director of Shorenstein in 2020, this rationale comes as a big surprise,” Donovan wrote in a Feb. 2 email to colleagues, per the disclosure. “If I had known that we would be dismantled before the 2024 election, I would have built our project elsewhere.”

Smith wrote in an emailed statement Tuesday that per HKS policy, all research projects require leadership by a faculty member and that the school unsuccessfully attempted to find a faculty member to oversee the research.

“After that effort did not succeed, the project was given more than a year to wind down,” Smith wrote. “Joan Donovan was not fired, and most members of the research team chose to remain at the School in new roles.”

Donovan wrote in the declaration that she had planned to move the TaSC project to the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society — an effort that was scuttled after the publication of The Crimson’s article and the announcement that the project would be shut down.

The disclosure cites a $500 million donation to the University made by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in 2021 for a University-wide center on artificial intelligence as a potential influence on the Kennedy School’s decision to end Donovan’s project.

The donation was given just a few months after HKS came into possession of the “Facebook Files” — a set of internal research documents detailing the social media platform’s potential for harm — though none of this money was received by the Kennedy School.

The TaSC project ultimately ended earlier than the proposed timeline, ceasing its work on Aug. 31. Donovan was given the offer to continue on as an adjunct lecturer at the school but ultimately left Harvard that month to join Boston University’s College of Communication as a tenure-track assistant professor.

“Once I felt the Kennedy School didn’t back me as a scholar, I had to leave,” she said in an interview with The Crimson in August 2023.

In the disclosure, Donovan alleged that Elmendorf told her in a one-on-one meeting in August 2022 that he was shutting down TaSC and that she did “not have academic freedom” or legal rights to her research.

“I realized he must mean that he would no longer allow me to do any work given the possibility my work could upset Facebook,” Donovan wrote. “I was intimidated into submission and I was afraid for my team, my career and my family since the Dean was clear that he would not hesitate to use any avenue he could to control and silence me and the entire TASC team.”

Elmendorf said in an interview Tuesday evening that the school’s faculty members hire “roughly a couple of hundred staff members” for research and that faculty members have the final say over major research decisions.

“The staff members’ ideas and effort are important, but the final decisions about which projects to pursue, what funds to solicit for projects, and when research results are ready to be published are elements of academic freedom that are left to the faculty members,” he said.

At HKS, Donovan took on a prominent role in the Facebook archive project, an initiative to preserve internal research documents released by 2021 Facebook whistleblower Frances B. Haugen detailing the technologies’ potential for social harm.

Donovan stated that she reached out to HKS professor Latanya A. Sweeney in October 2021 to launch what later became fbarchive.org, an online archive of the files — a project that Donovan alleged put a target on her back at the school.

“If I had continued to do multi-platform research and had not received the entire cache of Frances Haugen’s Facebook documents, I would have likely been allowed to continue my work along with fundraising and rebuilding the Shorenstein Center’s reputation with donors,” she wrote.

In her declaration, Donovan suggested that potential influence from former Facebook executives Elliot J. Schrage ’81, the company’s former head of communications, and Sheryl Sandberg ’91, the former chief operating officer of Meta Platforms, played a role in her project’s elimination.

“I had been warned by other faculty at Harvard and other universities that Mr. Schrage and Sheryl Sandberg, former COO of Facebook, were particularly strategic when influencing academia, the media, and their powerful peers,” Donovan wrote, describing the former as “Facebook’s ‘fixer’ within academia.”

In late October 2021, Donovan was invited to speak at the Dean’s Council — a fundraising body for HKS — and spoke about the files in an answer to a question prompted by Shorenstein Center Director Nancy R. Gibbs.

Donovan wrote that Schrage, a member of the Dean’s Council, pressed her on her statements throughout the meeting.

“Mr. Schrage monopolized the discussion by accusing me that my reading of the documents was inaccurate and that he disagreed with all prior discussion about Facebook,” Donovan wrote.

Schrage declined to comment for this article.

The disclosure noted that Elmendorf served as an undergraduate adviser to Sandberg and maintains a lifelong friendship with the former Meta executive — even attending her 2022 wedding.

Sandberg did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The disclosure also alleged that the school gave a senior Facebook executive permission to audit Donovan’s course in September 2020, adding that she believed he “was also there to monitor her class on Facebook’s behalf.”

Smith wrote in an email that the Kennedy School continues to devote resources to social media research, citing the Facebook Archive and the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, which is the only peer-reviewed misinformation journal.

“Harvard University and Harvard Kennedy School continue to carry out pathbreaking research on misinformation and the role of social media in society,” Smith wrote. “By policy and in practice, donors have no influence over this or other work.”

Sweeney, who served as the co-principal investigator of TaSC, wrote in a statement to The Crimson that the disclosure contains an abundance of “inaccuracies and falsehoods” that she finds to be “self-serving” and “horribly disappointing.” Sweeney also wrote that from the start, she was in charge of FBarchive.

“Meta exerted no influence over FBarchive or any of our/my work,” Sweeney wrote. “Just a few weeks ahead of the public launch, we offered Meta the chance to review the archive for security and privacy concerns and suggest redactions, which we independently elected to accept or reject.”

—Staff writer Asher J. Montgomery can be reached at asher.montgomery@thecrimson.com. Follow her on X @asherjmont or on Threads @asher_montgomery.

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