Ex-Harvard scholar Joan Donovan claims she was ousted for pointing out Facebook’s ‘digital harms’

Ex-Harvard scholar Joan Donovan claims she was ousted for pointing out Facebook’s ‘digital harms’

A respected scholar claims that she was pushed out of her position at Harvard University for pointing out “digital harms” caused by Facebook and Instagram after the school got a fat donation from Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

Disinformation researcher Joan Donovan claimed in an explosive filing with the US Education Department and Massachusetts attorney general last week that the Ivy League school’s leadership sought to “destroy” her work on the heels of receiving a $500 million pledge from Zuckerberg’s charity.

Donovan — who worked at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government as the Director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project (TASC) from 2018 until her ousting in August — studied mis- and disinformation on social media platforms, including Meta’s Facebook and Instagram, per the filing, earlier reported on by The Washington Post.

Before the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative committed a multimillion-dollar grant to Harvard’s center on artificial intelligence in December 2019, Donovan said that she raised “ample funding” herself for her “research into media manipulation campaigns … which still resides in Harvard University’s bank account.”

However, her contributions were overlooked “to protect the interest of high-value donors with obvious ties to Meta,” according to Donovan’s filing. After the $500 million pledge, Donovan alleged that her research became restricted.

Joan Donovan was ousted from her position researching media manipulation at Harvard University after she found “digital harms” at Facebook, whose owner was a big-time donor to the Ivy League, an explosive new filing claims. Boston Globe via Getty Images
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — which was founded by Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, who both attended Harvard — awarded $500 million to the Technology and Social Change Research Project (TASC), which Donovan directed. Getty Images

More than three years after the hefty award from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative — which was founded by Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, who both attended Harvard — Donovan was informed that her role at the John F. Kennedy School would be terminated, and that the TASC program would be ground to a halt.

Donovan was also notified that her position as the Research Director for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center would be eliminated, effective Aug. 31, despite her employment contract with he university not expiring until the end of 2024.

Donovan had remained quiet about the saga up until filing the 248-page legal complaint, which details her relationship with Facebook, which dates back to 2019, before the social media site was rebranded under the Meta umbrella.

“It became quite apparent to Dr. Donovan that Facebook was, not so subtly, attempting to influence her work [at TASC], particularly when they offered to create a partnership and ‘fund’ her research,” Donovan claimed in the filing.

Facebook repeatedly requested to partner with Donovan and the TASC program throughout 2019 and 2020, she alleged — all of which Donovan turned down “because of the inherent conflict of interest.”

“Everything changed dramatically” after Donovan acquired the “Facebook Papers” — a swath of internal documents leaked by whistleblower and former Facebook data engineer Frances Haugen in 2021, Donovan claimed.

The documents, which “privately and meticulously tracked real-world harms exacerbated by its [Meta’s] platforms,” according to The Washington Post, were at the center of a media frenzy.

Donovan was reportedly “one of the only researchers in the world who had access to the documents” at that time, in October 2021.

Donovan went on to champion the files as the “most important documents in internet history” before Harvard’s Dean Council. She recalls in her declaration that her endorsement of the Facebook Papers triggered a “visceral reaction” from Facebook’s former Head of Communications, Elliot Scheage, who was in the audience as a member of the council.

Harvard leadership probed TASC after Donovan revealed that she acquired the “Facebook Papers,” which pointed to harms caused by the social media site, Donovan alleged in her 248-page filing. Getty Images

Schrage hounded Donovan with questions during the meeting, and said she inaccurately interpreted the papers, Donovan wrote in a sworn declaration included in the filing.

Just days after the Dean Council event, Kennedy School dean Doug Elmendorf, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, probed Donovan with pointed questions on TASC.

“They [Harvard leadership] began adopting Meta’s language and questioned Dr. Donovan’s research methodologies — specifically with respect to Facebook — in order to protect their own financial interests,” Donovan alleged.

“It became abundantly clear that Kennedy School leadership was taking its cues from Meta and acting on behalf of Meta’s best interests,” she added.

Elmendorf then notified Donovan that she “did not have academic freedom or even the legal ‘rights’ to her own research,” and barred her from fundraising or contributing any further to TASC.

Shortly thereafter, Donovan was let go.

“All of this happened because Dr. Donovan’s research struck a chord counter to Meta’s corporate interests,” Donovan claimed in the filing.

Kennedy School spokesperson Sofiya Cabalquinto insisted to The Washington Post that Donovan’s claims are false.

“The document’s allegations of unfair treatment and donor interference are false. The narrative is full of inaccuracies and baseless insinuations, particularly the suggestion that Harvard Kennedy School allowed Facebook to dictate its approach to research,” Cabalquinto told the outlet.

Facebook executives tried to partner with Donovan and TASC multiple times, Donovan claimed, though she turned town the offers over the “inherent conflict of interest.” REUTERS

“By policy and in practice, donors have no influence over this or other work.”

Cabalquinto’s email added, per The Washington Post: “By long-standing policy to uphold academic standards, all research projects at Harvard Kennedy School need to be led by faculty members. Joan Donovan was hired as a staff member (not a faculty member) to manage a media manipulation project.”

“When the original faculty leader of the project left Harvard, 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. Joan Donovan was not fired, and most members of the research team chose to remain at the school in new roles.”

The Post has sought comment from Harvard University and Donovan, who’s website says that she’s now working as an assistant professor of journalism and emerging media studies at the College of Communications at Boston University.

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