Misinformation expert says she was fired from Harvard after pressure from Meta

Joan Donovan, one of the world’s leading experts on misinformation, says Harvard University cut off funding for her team’s critical research on Facebook after Meta donated $500 million to the institution.

Donovan and her team at Harvard’s Technology and Social Change Research Project (TASC) were analyzing thousands of documents, which allegedly exposed Facebook’s knowledge of how the platform has caused significant public harm.

The documents were collected by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook product manager. They formed the basis for The Wall Street Journal’s famous investigative series called “The Facebook Files,” which was published in late 2021.

Donovan, believing the 22,000 pages of documents to be of huge public interest, began publishing them to Harvard’s website for anyone to access.

That, Donovan now says, was her mistake because Harvard’s Kennedy School’s dean, Douglas Elmendorf, suddenly began a two-year campaign to purge her and stifle her team’s research. Harvard cut off her funding, and she could not hire assistants. The project was soon closed down.

In a legal filing with the US Education Department and the Massachusetts Attorney General first published by The Washington Post, Donovan said her right to free speech had been abrogated.

“The mood changed overnight. The work we were doing turned from a source of pride for Harvard into a source of shame,” wrote Dr. Donovan after her position at Harvard was eliminated.

“Instead of seizing on an extraordinary opportunity to further our knowledge of social media platforms and how they work hidden from public scrutiny, the university subjected my team and our projects to death by a thousand cuts.”

What happened? According to Donovan, her work became a threat to Harvard’s treasured donor relationship – the university was finalizing the largest donation the Harvard Kennedy School had ever received, $500 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Priscilla Chan is, of course, the wife of Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta, Facebook’s parent company. The Zuckerbergs are both Harvard alumni.

This, of course, doesn’t prove any wrongdoing. However, in the filing, Donovan says: “There are a handful of tried and true means to coerce someone or some entity to do something they would not otherwise do, and influence through financial compensation is at or near the top of the list.”

The filing was put together with the assistance of Whistleblower Aid, a Washington-based organization that also helped Haugen, who alleged that Meta knew its platforms helped spread harmful misinformation.

Donovan and Whistleblower Aid are calling for an urgent and impartial investigation into inappropriate influence at the Harvard Kennedy School. The institution told The Washington Post that Donovan’s departure was not related to Meta.

“This is a shocking betrayal of Harvard’s academic integrity and the public interest,” said Libby Liu, CEO of Whistleblower Aid.

“We’ve seen in the past how Big Tobacco, Big Energy, and Big Pharma have succeeded in influencing, undermining, and co-opting research to protect their lies, their profits and evade accountability. Now Meta, with the complicity of a powerful ally, is following the same playbook.”

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