The Cost of Criticizing Meta? Termination

Leading propaganda expert files legal complaint against Harvard, saying it put donors over scholarship.

Prominent disinformation scholar Dr. Joan Donovan has filed a legal complaint against Harvard, saying she was fired for criticizing Meta.

She joined Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard University in 2018 as the Technology and Social Change (TASC) project was just getting underway. As a researcher who has studied the ways that nefarious manipulate the media, she was uniquely suited for the project, which describes its mission as “dedicated to understanding how media manipulation impacts public conversation, democracy, and society.”

The following year, she was promoted, and under Dr. Donovan’s leadership, TASC investigated and published research on a wide range of topics, including misinformation related to the January 6, 2021, insurrection

According to Whistleblower Aid, representing Dr. Donovan, in 2021, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative pledged $500 million over 15 years to found Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence at Harvard. It was the largest single contribution in the school’s history. Both Chan and Zuckerberg attended Harvard.

Whistleblower Aid accuses Harvard’s Kennedy School leaders of targeting Dr. Donovan to destroy her work and her team’s work to “protect the interests of high-value donors with obvious and direct ties to Meta/Facebook.” Harvard strongly denies this claim.

The Washington Post reports that Dr. Donovan’s conflict with Harvard began when she acquired the Facebook Papers, a collection of internal documents whistleblower Frances Jaugen provided to Congress and multiple news outlets. At a gathering of important Harvard donors, Dr. Donovan spoke of the importance of these papers, as they demonstrated that Meta was well aware of the harm its platforms were causing but opted to prioritize engagement over user safety. 

Fired Just in Time for the Political Season

Ten days after the gathering, her troubles with Harvard began. Kennedy School Dean Doug Elmendorf emailed Donovan, asking her “pointed” questions and reminding her that the $500 million grant was in the works. It culminated in her being let go.

“The surprise dismissal alarmed fellow researchers elsewhere, who saw Donovan as a pioneer in an increasingly critical area of great sensitivity to the powerful and well-connected tech giants,” the Washington Post wrote.

Harvard claims that Dr. Donovan was informed at the end of 2022 that it would wind down the TASC project. Nancy Gibbs, the director of the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, told the Washington Post in early February of this year that the decision was due to a school policy that requires a faculty member to lead research. Dr. Donovan is not a faculty member. That decision prompted more than 100 Harvard professors to call for the resignation of the Dean of the Kennedy School

Far be it from me to second guess decisions made by Harvard, but Dr. Donovan was hired in 2018. It took them until late 2022 to realize she was not a faculty member.

Harvard’s Surprising Ostracism

At a time when just 32% of Americans say they trust the media, the dismissal isn’t a good look. Dr. Donovan is hardly an obscure researcher tucked away in an ivory tower. She is co-author of Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America, a book that Harvard itself describes as “A political thriller with the substance of a rigorous history” and “a warning that if we fail to recognize these powerful undercurrents, the great meme war for the soul of America will soon be won.” 

Before joining Harvard, she was a research lead for media manipulation and platform accountability at the Data & Society Research Institute.

Dr. Donovan has also testified before Congress on online misinformation and the influence of social media algorithms on societal discourse. “Deception is now a multi-million industry. My research team tracks dangerous individuals and groups that pose as political campaigns, social movements, news organizations, charities, brands, and even ordinary people. This emerging economy of misinformation is a threat to national security,” she warned the House Subcommittee on Consumer Protection and Commerce. 

A Growing Scourge for Journalists

Misinformation is a severe threat to journalism, both to the journalists who investigate the news and the audiences who rely on news reports to make decisions. According to a PEN America survey, 81% of journalists say misinformation is a serious threat they confront daily. While there is broad recognition of the problem, 11% of respondents said they had inadvertently included misinformation in articles they’ve published.

This makes it baffling that Harvard would ostracize a prominent expert in disinformation and how to prevent it, especially as we move into the political season. Election experts have raised the alarm of misinformation, and some say that AI-generated misinformation will be the “super weapon” of nefarious players.

“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 said in an email to colleagues. “If I had known that we would be dismantled before the 2024 election, I would have built our project elsewhere.”

It’s a pity she didn’t, as this decision leaves a gaping hole when expertise in misinformation will be needed most.