Whistleblower allegation: Harvard muzzled disinfo team after $500 million Zuckerberg donation

A prominent disinformation scholar who dropped out of Harvard University in August has accused the school of muzzling her speech and stifling — and then dismantling — her research team when it launched a deep dive in late 2021 into a trove of Facebook files that considers them to be the most important documents on the Internet. history.

The actions that influenced Joan Donovan's work coincided with a $500 million donation from a foundation run by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. In a whistleblower statement made public Monday, Donovan calls for investigations into “undue influence” by Harvard's general counsel, the Massachusetts attorney general's office and the U.S. Department of Education.

The CEO of Whisteblower Aid, a legal nonprofit that supports Donovan, called the alleged behavior of the Harvard 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 to protect (Facebook's) interests, the outcome is the same: corporate interests undermine research and academic freedom to the detriment of the public,” CEO Libby Liu said in a speech . press statement.

In response, the Kennedy School rejects allegations of unfair treatment and donor interference in disclosure. “The story is riddled with inaccuracies and baseless innuendo, especially the suggestion that the Harvard Kennedy School allowed Facebook to dictate its approach to research,” spokesman James F. Smith said in a statement.

The Whistleblower Aid statement quotes Donovan accusing Dean Douglas Elmendorf of subjecting her team to “a thousand cuts” after she began making robust plans in October 2021 to set up a research center for the so-called Facebook files, which were collected by a former employee Frances Haugen to highlight the public damage.

After the revelations, Zuckerberg changed Facebook's name to Meta.

Despite the company's public position that Haugen was blowing internal research out of proportion, Donovan and other independent researchers saw the documents as confirmation that Facebook's design had radicalized people, that its algorithms stoked racial animosity, encouraged ethnic cleansing and harmed the mental health of teens harmed.

“I honestly believed these were the most important documents in Internet history,” Donovan said in an interview Monday. 'Our role as academics is not to play favorites. It's not for PR. It's to tell the truth no matter what. It makes us feel uncomfortable and unfortunately I lost my job because of it.”

Donovan alleged that Elmendorf “kept me from hiring people and starting 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 do that'. I want to unquote, unquote, increase my public profile.” She said this led her to stop media interviews and publish op-eds.

“Our plan was to run for election in 2024,” Donovan said. At one point $4.5 million so we could do our work until 2024.”

Donovan said that after her contract was terminated, she refused severance because she felt she would be complicit “if I were rewarded for my silence.”

Harvard hired Donovan in 2018, now an assistant professor at Boston University, 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.

In its statement, the Kennedy School denied that Donovan had been fired. It said she was a staff member – not a faculty member – and that all research projects at the school were to be led by faculty. The school “tried for some time to find another faculty member who had the time and interest to lead the project. After that attempt was unsuccessful, the project was given more than a year to wind down” and most members of the research team remained in research roles.

Donovan said she was not aware of any search for someone to take over as head of the research project, which she founded and for which she said she had raised $12 million.

In its statement, the Kennedy School said it “did not receive any part of the gift from Chan-Zuckerberg,” which went to Harvard University for work unrelated to her own work.

Both Chan and Zuckerberg went to Harvard, where Facebook first launched.

Harvard eventually released an archive of the Facebook files, although Donovan said it was considerably less ambitious and open than she envisioned.

Meta was consulted about redacting the approximately 20,000 images in that archive, and the Kennedy School team that managed it decided to make about 160 of the more than 800 redactions requested by the company — in almost all cases to rename Meta -remove low-level 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.