Disinformation researcher says she was fired by Harvard after $500M donation from Meta

In February, The Crimson, the student newspaper at Harvard University, broke the story that the school had decided to shut down the Technology and Social Change project, a research effort founded by Joan Donovan, a prominent disinformation researcher. This took many researchers in the field by surprise; Donovan was highly regarded in the field, and had reportedly been wooed by a number of prestigious institutions before agreeing to join Harvard and lead the project. Donovan was also one of the first researchers to get her hands on the documents leaked by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook staffer who collected evidence of alleged wrongdoing by the platform. Getting access to these documents seemed like a coup for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, which Donovan and the Technology and Social Change project were affiliated with.

Why would Harvard decide to shut down such a prominent and well-regarded effort? The Crimson reported in February that according to unnamed sources within Harvard, Donovan was being forced out by Douglas Elmendorf, dean of the Kennedy School of Government, because she and her work were getting too much attention. The Crimson‘s sources said that Elmendorf had forbidden Donovan to spend any more money on the Technology and Social Change project or hire any more staff. However, according to James Smith, a Harvard spokesman who sent The Crimson a statement at the time, Donovan’s project was being shut down because university policy required that every research effort be led by a faculty member, and Donovan was a contract staffer.

Note: This was originally published as the daily newsletter for the Columbia Journalism Review, where I am the chief digital writer

Donovan has a very different take on her departure: In a 248-page document released on Monday, addressed to both the president of Harvard and the US Secretary of Education, she alleges that “in order to protect the interests of high-value donors” associated with Meta, the Kennedy School began to “target Dr. Donovan’s team, their work, and her personally in an effort to diminish—if not destroy—their research,” and that this was an infringement of her right to academic freedom and freedom of speech. According to Donovan, Elmendorf was pressured by the company to stop her research because he is friends with Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Meta. In December 2021, the university received a five-hundred-million-dollar donation from the Chan-Zuckerberg initiative, the nonprofit foundation set up by Mark Zuckerberg, the founder and CEO of Meta, and Julia Chan, his wife.

According to Donovan’s statement, which includes copies of dozens of emails and text messages between her and Harvard faculty members, Elmendorf and others at the Kennedy School were “inappropriately influenced” by Meta as a result of the company’s funding promises, leading to what Donovan called a “significant conflict of interest” that was compounded by the friendship between Elmendorf and Sandberg (Donovan says Elmendorf was Sandberg’s advisor when she was at Harvard in 1991, and attended Sandberg’s wedding in 2022, four days before shutting down Donovan’s project). Donovan alleges that this conflict of interest created a culture of “operating in the best interest of Facebook/Meta at the expense of academic freedom,” and that her attempt to create a public archive of the Facebook Papers was sabotaged.

Smith told me in an email that the document’s allegations are false, and that the narrative is “full of inaccuracies and baseless insinuations,” particularly the suggestion that Harvard allowed Facebook to “dictate its approach to research.” Research projects routinely come to an end, he said, and the Facebook Papers archive exists. Donovan said the archive is much less extensive than what she envisioned, and in the history section it states that the Facebook Papers came to Harvard from an anonymous source, rather than from Donovan, and does not credit her as the founder of the project. The university says it offered Donovan a job as an adjunct professor, but she turned it down. Donovan is now an assistant professor in the journalism program at Boston University.

In an interview with me on Tuesday, she said her relationship with Harvard started to go sour in October of 2021, when she was asked by Elmendorf’s office to attend a meeting of the Dean’s Council, a group of high-profile donors. She was interviewed by Nancy Gibbs, her faculty advisor, and the discussion turned to the Facebook documents that Haugen had leaked not long before the meeting. Donovan recalled that she referred to the documents as “the most important documents in internet history,” and that she told the Dean’s Council the documents should be made public, because they contained evidence that Meta knew some of its products were “harming democracy.”

The participants in the Dean’s Council meeting included Elliot Schrage, then the vice president of communications and global policy for Meta. After Donovan brought up the Haugen leaks, she says Schrage started becoming agitated, “rocking in his chair and waving his arms and trying to interrupt.” During a Q&A session after her talk, Donovan says Schrage reiterated a number of common Meta talking points, including the fact that disinformation is a fluid concept with no agreed-upon definition, and that the company didn’t want to be an “arbiter of truth.” Donovan says that Gibbs supported her after the incident, and the two talked about how Schrage would likely try to put pressure on Elmendorf about the idea of creating a public archive of the documents.

Donovan says Elmendorf’s relationship with Sandberg was common knowledge at Harvard, and so she and her colleagues were “very cautious” about how they worked on the archive, and spent a lot of time “hand-wringing about who we were going to upset.” She says that when Elmendorf called her in for a meeting, he told her that she was not to raise any more money for her project, that she was forbidden to spend any of the money she had raised (a total of twelve million dollars, she says) and couldn’t hire any new staff. Donovan says Elmendorf told her he wasn’t going to allow any expenditure that “increased my public profile,” and that he used a number of Meta talking points such as the phrase “arbiters of truth” in his assesment of her work.

In December, Harvard announced the donation from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, to fund a new institute devoted to intelligence (Jeff MacGregor, a spokesman for the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, told the Post that the fund had “no involvement in Dr. Donovan’s departure.”) Donovan said that whether Meta put pressure on Elmendorf or he simply realized that high-value donors would be upset with her work, the result was the same: the closure of the Technology and Social Change project. Donovan said she tried to move her work to the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard, but the head of the center said they didn’t have the “political capital” to bring on someone that Elmendorf had “targeted.”

My interview with Donovan was facilitated by Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit legal-aid group that helped Haugen after she revealed her identity. When I asked Donovan why she chose to make her complaint an act of whistleblowing as opposed to a routine legal case, she said she is filing a wrongful termination action against Harvard. But she added that she wanted to take the extra step of outlining her allegations because the principle at stake is an important one. Donovan said that when she reacted negatively to Elmendorf’s criticism of her research, he implied that if she was sued over her work, the university would not protect her, and said that she couldn’t expect any academic freedom because she was on contract rather than being a faculty member.

The idea that only faculty are protected by academic freedom has struck a number of observers as a dangerous one for a university to take. Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School, told the Washington Post that when someone is as prominent a researcher in their field as Donovan is, the university “ought to award that person the protections of academic freedom.” Donovan told me that she believes the pressure to shut down her project is part of a broader pattern of influence in which Meta and other tech platforms have tried to make research into disinformation as difficult as possible, and that she hopes that by blowing the whistle, her case will be the “tip of the spear.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *