The Media Today

Joan Donovan speaks out about Meta and her ouster from Harvard

December 7, 2023
Joan Donovan, then of the Shorenstein Center on Media, and Politics, speaks remotely during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, on Capitol Hill, Tuesday, April 27, 2021, in Washington. (Al Drago/Pool via AP)

In February, the Crimson, the student newspaper at Harvard University, broke the story that the school intended to shut down the Technology and Social Change Project, a research effort founded and run by Joan Donovan, a prominent disinformation researcher. The news surprised many observers: Donovan is highly regarded in her field and had reportedly been wooed by a number of prestigious US institutions before agreeing to join Harvard to lead the project. Among other accomplishments, she was among the first researchers to get their hands on internal documents leaked by Frances Haugen, a former Facebook staffer who had collected evidence of alleged wrongdoing by the platform, and whose disclosures would come to be known in the media as the “Facebook Papers.” This looked like a coup for Donovan and also for Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, where her project was based.

Unnamed sources told the Crimson at the time that Douglas Elmendorf, the dean of the Kennedy School of Government (where the Shorenstein Center is based), was forcing Donovan out because she and her work were getting too much attention; he reportedly ordered her not to spend any more money on the Technology and Social Change Project or to hire any more staff, and also blocked her from doing any public appearances or interviews about her research. The official line came via James Smith, a Harvard spokesperson who told the Crimson that the decision was down to a university policy that requires every research effort to be led by a faculty member (which Donovan was not).

This week, we learned that Donovan has a very different take on her departure. In a 248-page document that became public on Monday and was addressed to both the president of Harvard and the US secretary of education, she alleged that Elmendorf and the Kennedy School targeted her team, their work, and her personally in an effort to “diminish—if not destroy—their research,” and that they did so to protect “the interests of high-value donors associated with Meta,” the parent company of Facebook and Instagram. Donovan argues that Harvard thus infringed her rights to academic freedom and freedom of speech, and further alleges that Meta pressured Elmendorf to act, noting that he is friends with Sheryl Sandberg, the company’s chief operating officer. (Elmendorf was Sandberg’s advisor when she studied at Harvard in the early nineties; he attended Sandberg’s wedding in 2022, four days before moving to shut down Donovan’s project.) In December 2021, the university received a five-hundred-million-dollar donation from the Chan-Zuckerberg initiative, a nonprofit foundation controlled by Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Meta, and Priscilla Chan, his wife.

In her statement, which includes copies of dozens of emails and text messages between her and Harvard faculty members, Donovan alleges that Meta “inappropriately influenced” Elmendorf and others at the Kennedy School in return for the promise of funding, leading to what Donovan calls a “significant conflict of interest” that was compounded by the friendship between Elmendorf and Sandberg. Donovan alleges that this conflict created a culture of “operating in the best interest of Facebook/Meta at the expense of academic freedom,” and that Harvard sabotaged her attempt to create a public archive of the Facebook Papers.

In an email, Smith, the Harvard spokesperson, told me that Donovan’s allegations are false, describing her narrative as “full of inaccuracies and baseless insinuations,” in particular the suggestion that Harvard allowed Facebook to “dictate its approach to research.” Smith added that research projects routinely come to an end, and that the Facebook Papers archive project was completed. (Donovan says that the archive is much less extensive than she envisioned.) Harvard has said that it offered Donovan a job as an adjunct professor, but that she turned it down. (She is now an assistant professor in the journalism program at Boston University.)

In an interview with me on Tuesday, Donovan said that her relationship with Harvard started to sour in October 2021, when Elmendorf asked her to speak at a meeting of the Dean’s Council, a group of the university’s high-profile donors. Nancy Gibbs, Donovan’s faculty advisor, interviewed her about social media and disinformation and the discussion eventually turned to the Facebook documents that Haugen had leaked a few weeks prior to the meeting. As Donovan recalls, she referred to the leak as “the most important documents in internet history,” and told the meeting that they should be made public because they contained evidence that Meta knew some of its products were seriously flawed and were even “harming democracy.”

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Elliot Schrage, then the vice president of communications and global policy for Meta, was also at the meeting. Donovan says that, after she brought up the Haugen leaks, Schrage became agitated and visibly angry, “rocking in his chair and waving his arms and trying to interrupt.” During a Q&A session after her talk, Donovan says, Schrage reiterated a number of common Meta talking points, including the fact that disinformation is a fluid concept with no agreed-upon definition and that the company didn’t want to be an “arbiter of truth.” According to Donovan, Gibbs was supportive after the incident. She says that they discussed how Schrage would likely try to pressure Elmendorf about the idea of creating a public archive of the documents. (Gibbs and Schrage had not been reached for comment at the time of this writing; we’ll update the online version of this newsletter if they provide comment.)

According to Donovan, Elmendorf’s friendship with Sandberg was common knowledge at Harvard; Donovan says that she and her colleagues were “very cautious” about their work on the archive and that they spent a lot of time “hand-wringing about who we were going to upset” with their research. After Elmendorf called her in for a status meeting, Donovan claims that he told her she was not to raise any more money for her project; that she was forbidden to spend the money that she had raised (a total of twelve million dollars, she says); and that she couldn’t hire any new staff. According to Donovan, Elmendorf told her that he wasn’t going to allow any expenditure that increased her public profile, and used a number of Meta talking points in his assessment of her work.

In December, Harvard announced the donation from the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative to fund a new institute devoted to the science of both artificial and natural intelligence. (Jeff MacGregor, a spokesperson for the Chan-Zuckerberg Initiative, told the Washington Post that the fund had “no involvement in Dr. Donovan’s departure.”) Donovan said that, regardless of whether Meta put pressure on Elmendorf or he simply realized that high-value donors would be upset with her work, the result was the same: the closure of her Technology and Social Change project, which she says caused significant damage to her reputation and her academic career. Donovan says she tried to move her work to the Berkman Klein Center at Harvard, but that the head of that center told her that they didn’t have the “political capital” to bring on someone whom Elmendorf had “targeted.”

My interview with Donovan was facilitated by Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit legal-aid group that also worked with Haugen after she revealed her identity. When I asked Donovan why she chose to make her complaint an act of whistleblowing as opposed to a routine legal case, she replied that she is filing a wrongful termination action against Harvard, adding that she wanted to take the extra step of outlining her allegations in an official whistleblowing document because the principle at stake is an important one. Donovan said that, during the meeting with Elmendorf, he implied that if she was sued over her work, the university would not protect her, and that she couldn’t expect to have any academic freedom because she was a staff member on contract rather than a faculty member.

The idea that only faculty are protected by academic freedom strikes a number of observers as a dangerous one for a university. Lawrence Lessig, a professor at Harvard Law School, told the Post that, when a researcher is as prominent in their field as Donovan is, the university “ought to award that person the protections of academic freedom.” Donovan told me that she believes the pressure to shut down her project is part of a broader pattern of influence in which Meta and other tech platforms have tried to make research into disinformation as difficult as possible. (Meta did not reply to a request for comment by the time of this writing; again, we’ll update the online version of this newsletter if they do.) Donovan said she hopes that by blowing the whistle on Harvard, her case will be the “tip of the spear.”

Other notable stories:

  • This morning, Reuters is out with an investigation—based on more than thirty interviews, hours of video, hundreds of photos, and the gathering of evidence from the scene—into the killing of its journalist Issam Abdallah in a strike near the border between Lebanon and Israel in October, concluding that an Israeli tank crew fired two shells in quick succession from inside Israel. Agence France-Presse—whose journalist Christina Assi was seriously injured in the same incident—published an investigation of its own, reaching similar conclusions and pointing to separate probes by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, both of which suggested that the attack should be investigated as a war crime. (HRW called it “apparently deliberate.”) The Israel Defense Forces told Reuters, “We don’t target journalists,” without commenting further.
  • Today, more than seven hundred staffers at the Washington Post were set to strike for twenty-four hours in protest of stalled negotiations over a union contract and their working conditions; Post bosses are in the process of offering buyouts as they seek to eliminate nearly two hundred and fifty jobs, and recently warned that layoffs will follow if more staff don’t accept. The union representing staffers at the paper asked readers not to engage with any Post content for the duration of the strike, which is one of the biggest to hit DC in recent memory. Washingtonian reported that the paper expected to struggle to maintain normal operations—“We have nothing in the cupboard,” one manager told staff—but bosses insisted that coverage would be “as unaffected as possible.”
  • In other media-jobs news, Yahoo laid off staffers covering news, sports, and entertainment as it seeks to cut its workforce by a fifth. Elsewhere, amid layoffs at CondĂ© Nast, the comedian Andy Borowitz confirmed that The New Yorker has dropped his long-running satirical column. The Arena Group, which publishes Sports Illustrated, let go of two top executives a week after the magazine “suffered an embarrassing artificial intelligence scandal,” Front Office Sports reports. And the Allbritton Journalism Institute, a nonprofit led by the Politico founder Robert Allbritton, is launching News of the United States, or NOTUS, a newsroom dedicated to training aspiring DC journalists. 
  • For his podcast All There Is, about living with grief, CNN’s Anderson Cooper interviewed President Biden, who, Cooper writes, has “been more open than any sitting US president about the deaths he’s experienced and the grief he still lives with.” When Cooper showed up at the White House for the interview, he asked if he could trade the traditional interview setup—two chairs far apart—for a more intimate setting across a table; Biden agreed. The result, Cooper says, was the most “personal interview about grief and loss” that a US president has ever taken part in.
  • And Time magazine named Taylor Swift its person of the year, and landed a rare interview with the pop superstar. Over time, Swift “has harnessed the power of the media, both traditional and new, to create something wholly unique—a narrative world, in which her music is just one piece in an interactive, shape-shifting story,” Sam Lansky writes. “This was the year she perfected her craft—not just with her music, but in her position as the master storyteller of the modern era.”

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Mathew Ingram is CJR’s chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in the Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as by Reuters and Bloomberg.