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7 Dez 2023

Justine Calma & Emilia David, The Verge

Misinformation expert alleges Harvard pushed her out of her job under Meta's pressure

"Disinformation researcher accuses Meta of meddling in Harvard’s research", 7 December 2023

A prominent expert in online disinformation campaigns, Joan Donovan, says Meta pushed her former employer Harvard to shutter a major research project on media manipulation.

Donovan, who led Harvard’s Technology and Social Change Project (TaSC) until it ended this year, revealed her allegations earlier this week in a whistleblower complaint obtained by The Washington Post. She claims that Harvard scuttled her research after the charity of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, donated $500 million to the university in 2021. Around that time, Donovan and her colleagues at TaSC were working with the infamous Facebook Files, a cache of leaked documents that revealed the inner workings of how Facebook handled misconduct on its platform and potential risks to users.

“The work we were doing turned from a source of pride for Harvard into a source of shame,” Donovan says in a press release from the nonprofit legal group representing her, Whistleblower Aid.

Harvard and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative denied Donovan’s allegations...

Donovan became director of the TaSC project in 2018. She says in the complaint that she secured $12 million in funding for the initiative and was appointed research director of Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy in 2020. She’s been an outspoken voice against disinformation, testifying to Congress in 2020 as a subject matter expert on manipulation and deception online. During her time at TaSC, the initiative produced research and led workshops on following and debunking campaigns to manipulate media.

In September 2021, Donovan got her hands on the Facebook Files and started working with researchers from other institutions to archive and analyze them. Her complaint claims that things went downhill soon after, when she spoke about her work at a “Dean’s Council” meeting of around 50 of the Kennedy School’s top donors.

Donovan’s complaint says that Kennedy School dean Doug Elmendorf contacted Donovan roughly a week after the event to discuss her research, specifically focusing on questions raised at the meeting.

Elmendorf had personal ties to Meta executives. Zuckerberg, Chan, and former Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg all attended Harvard, and Elmendorf was an adviser to Sandberg when she was an undergraduate.

Meanwhile, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was about to make a significant donation to Harvard. In December 2021, it committed $500 million for a center on artificial intelligence research, tying Harvard and Meta financially through Zuckerberg. 

After Elmendorf’s email to Donovan and a subsequent meeting, the filing claims, the Kennedy School “starved TASC of personnel, and the grants management process ground to a halt.”

“Kennedy School leadership materially and significantly changed her duties, responsibilities, and working conditions around the time the University secured major funding from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and after she began a project called ‘Facebook Archive,’” the filing says. 

Speaking specifically about Donovan’s case, Harvard spokesperson James Francis Smith said its research projects have to be led by faculty members, which the university insisted Donovan was not. (Donovan’s complaint says it was “common knowledge” this requirement could be waived by the Dean.)

“In order to protect the interests of high-value donors with obvious and direct ties to Meta/Facebook, Kennedy School leadership began to target Dr. Donovan’s team, their work, and her personally in an effort to diminish – if not destroy – their research and public engagement despite the ample funding raised by Dr. Donovan, which still resides in Harvard University’s bank account,” the filing says.

“This is a shocking betrayal of Harvard’s academic integrity and the public interest,” Libby Liu, CEO of Whistleblower Aid, said in a press release. “

Harvard has denied the allegations. In a statement to The Verge, Smith said that “by policy and practice,” the university does not allow donors to influence any of its research.

The Verge reached out to representatives from Meta and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative for comment and did not receive a response. The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative told The Washington Post that “CZI had no involvement in Dr. Donovan’s departure from Harvard.”

Donovan argues she’s not the only researcher to face pressure from Meta.

Donovan requested the federal Department of Education look into her complaint, alleging violations of free speech and academic freedom, and for the Massachusetts attorney general’s charities office to investigate if Harvard misappropriated funds she raised. The department declined to comment on ongoing cases. The Massachusetts charities regulator did not respond to requests for comment.