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Whistleblower Allegation: Harvard Muzzled Disinfo Team After $500 Million Zuckerberg Donation
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Published 5 months ago on
December 5, 2023

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A prominent disinformation scholar who left Harvard University in August has accused the school of muzzling her speech and stifling — then dismantling — her research team as it launched a deep dive in late 2021 into a trove of Facebook files she considers the most important documents in internet history.

The actions impacting Joan Donovan’s work coincided with a $500 million donation to Harvard by a foundation run by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. In a whistleblower disclosure made public Monday, Donovan seeks investigations into “inappropriate influence” from Harvard’s general counsel, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office and the U.S. Department of Education.

Allegations Against Harvard

The CEO of Whisteblower Aid, a legal nonprofit supporting Donovan, called the alleged behavior by Harvard’s Kennedy School and its dean a “shocking betrayal” of academic integrity at the elite school.

“Whether Harvard acted at the company’s direction or took the initiative on their own to protect (Facebook’s) interests, the outcome is the same: corporate interests are undermining research and academic freedom to the detriment of the public,” CEO Libby Liu said in a press statement.

In response, the Kennedy School rejected the disclosure’s allegations of unfair treatment and donor interference. “The narrative is full of inaccuracies and baseless insinuations, particularly the suggestion that Harvard Kennedy School allowed Facebook to dictate its approach to research,” spokesman James F. Smith said in a statement.

Donovan’s Accusations

The Whistleblower Aid statement quotes Donovan accusing Dean Douglas Elmendorf of subjecting her team to “death by a thousand cuts” after she began making robust plans in October 2021 to create a research clearinghouse for the so-called Facebook Files, which were gathered by former employee Frances Haugen to highlight public harms.

Following the disclosures, Zuckerberg changed Facebook’s name to Meta.

Meta spokesman Andy Stone said the company had no comment on the dispute between Donovan and Harvard.

Impact of the Facebook Files

Despite the company’s public stance that Haugen was blowing internal research out of proportion, Donovan and other independent researchers considered the documents confirmation that Facebook’s design had radicalized people, its algorithms fomenting racial animosity, encouraging ethnic cleansing and damaging teen mental health.

Donovan’s Departure from Harvard

Donovan claimed Elmendorf “made it so that I couldn’t hire and I couldn’t start doing projects,” halting her fundraising, barring her from holding conferences with more than 30 attendees, and preventing her from launching “a podcast because he didn’t want to, quote unquote, raise my public profile.” She said that led her to halt media interviews and publish opinion pieces.

Harvard’s Response

In its statement, the Kennedy School denied that Donovan was fired. It said she was a staff member — not a faculty member — and all research projects at the school must be led by faculty members. 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” and most members of the research team remained in research roles. Donovan said Harvard offered to let her continue as a lecturer but without health insurance.

Donovan’s Current Position

Harvard hired Donovan, now an assistant professor at Boston University, in 2018, where she led the Technology and Social Change Research Project. In May 2020, she was promoted to research director of the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, where she lectured.

Chan-Zuckerberg Gift

In its statement, The Kennedy School said it “did not receive any portion of the Chan-Zuckerberg gift,” which went to Harvard University for an unrelated artificial intelligence initiative.

Release of the Facebook Files

Harvard ultimately did release an archive of the Facebook Files though Donovan said it was considerably less ambitious and open than she envisioned.

Meta was consulted on redactions to the roughly 20,000 images in that archive and the Kennedy School team managing it decided to make about 160 of the more than 800 redactions requested by the company — in nearly every case to remove the name of low-level Meta employees or outside people for privacy reasons, Smith said. He added that the Kennedy School’s Public Interest Tech Lab gave researchers early access to the archive in May 2023 and it became more fully public in October.

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