Facebook Accused of Pressuring Harvard to Fire a Disinformation Expert

These are some pretty serious accusations.

 by Noor Al-Sibai
Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty
Image by Pat Greenhouse/The Boston Globe via Getty

A disinformation expert who previously ran a pioneering research center at Harvard is accusing the university of firing her — under pressure from Facebook.

Best known for her work tracking COVID-19 disinformation, extremism researcher Joan Donovan is, per new court filings, accusing Harvard's Kennedy School of kowtowing to pressure from Facebook's parent company Meta after she gave a report that received significant pushback from people tied to the tech giant.

Until now, the reasons for Donovan's exit from Harvard earlier this year and news of the school's closure of her research initiative, the Technology and Social Change Project (TASC), were unknown. But now she's filed a 248-page document with the Massachusetts attorney general's office and the US Education Department proferring an explosive explanation.

As the researcher claims in her filing, the ball began rolling on her eventual exit in October 2021 when she gave a keynote presentation before top Kennedy School donors on the explosive "Facebook Papers," a trove of whistleblower documents she'd obtained suggesting the company didn't just allow disinformation to happen on its platform, but that it was acutely aware of the harm it was causing.

Among those she presented to was former Facebook communications executive Elliot Schrage, and in her filing, Donovan said the donor "became increasingly and visibly agitated" during her speech, which was conducted over Zoom. The researcher said in her sworn filing that Schrage interrupted her repeatedly and attempted to tell her that she misunderstood the leaked materials, eventually becoming so disruptive that other people had to intervene.

Ten days after their exchange during the virtual meeting, Kennedy School dean Doug Elmendorf emailed Donovan with several questions about her research that included phrasing that led her to believe he'd been in contact with Meta leadership. In particular, Elmendorf used the term "arbiters of truth" in his communications with the researcher — the same phrase CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg has used, and the company's public relations people often use, when dismissing concerns about disinformation.

After the inquiries from Elmendorf — who also, the filing points out, is a personal friend of former Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, having been her former academic advisor — Donovan said in her filing that "things began to change in a very real way," first with increased oversight of her project and then with cutoffs from grant and donation funding that TASC needed to survive.

Toward the beginning of the fall semester in 2022, the dean announced to Donovan that he was planning to "wind down" the project, and that she was not allowed to fundraise, begin new research, or hire anyone new without first firing someone else. By the beginning of the next academic year, she'd been hired by Boston University to continue her work at the neighboring school.

During the entire tumult surrounding TASC, the Chan Zuckerberg Insitute, a nonprofit group associated with the Meta CEO and his spouse, Priscilla Chan, donated a whopping $500 million to Harvard to create a university-wide institute studying artificial intelligence. As Donovan said in her filing, which was compiled with the help of the Whistleblower Aid law firm, the donation is believed to be "the largest single contribution/commitment in the history of the university."

"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," Whistleblower Aid attorneys Andrew Bakaj and Kyle Gardiner wrote in their filing on Donovan's behalf. "Objectively, $500 million is certainly significant financial influence."

In statements to the Washington Post, representatives for the Kennedy School denied the researcher's claims wholesale and said Donovan "was offered the chance to continue as a part-time adjunct lecturer, and she chose not to do so."

Much like academia, government investigations always take lots of time, and it'll therefore be a while before there are any official statements made by the Massachusetts AG or the Education Department.

That said, the timeline presented here does sound fishy – and if even part of what Donovan laid out in her gigantic and meticulously documented filing is true, Harvard's got some major explaining to do.

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