Researcher claims Harvard nixed social media research after getting Zuck bucks
University says ties to Meta execs and a $500 million donation played no role
A former Harvard misformation scholar has filed a whistleblower complaint against the Ivy League university, alleging that its Kennedy School canceled her research into social media harms in order to protect a $500 million donation from The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.
Harvard insists that the charges are totally, absolutely, definitely unfounded and that Meta has no undue influence at the school just because former student Mark Zuckerberg's philanthropic organization promised the largest donation to date, or because Facebook's former comms head Elliot Schrage participates in a fundraising body for the Kennedy School called the Dean's Council.
Dr Joan Donovan, presently an assistant professor at Boston University, worked from December 10, 2018 until August 31, 2023 for Harvard's John F Kennedy School of Government (HKS). She served as the director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project (TASC), which studied how communication technology affects social change.
TASC, while active between 2019 and 2023, reported on issues such as the role of social media in coronavirus hoaxes and in the January 6, 2021 riot at the US Capitol.
In her declaration filed in support of a complaint, Donovan claimed that once she began looking into allegations made in October 2021 by former Facebook employee Frances Haugen – that Meta/Facebook put profit over safety – the dean of HKS, Douglas Elmendorf, and other school leaders began questioning her about her work. Ultimately, she claimed, they shut down the research project she oversaw.
"HKS leadership systematically rendered TASC mute with an escalating series of restrictions and bureaucratic hurdles designed to stop their work and the power of Dr Donovan's research findings to challenge Meta's false public narratives," argued Whistleblower Aid in a statement supporting Donovan's complaint.
"Harvard's own code of conduct and commitment to academic freedom was trampled in the campaign to silence Dr Donovan – culminating in the dissolution of TASC and her termination this past summer."
Donovan, in the filing submitted to Harvard's president and general counsel, the US Department of Education, and subsequently the Massachusetts attorney general's Office, noted that Elmendorf's communication with the plaintiff began utilizing Facebook talking points that cast doubt on the possibility of separating information, misinformation, and disinformation.
"What struck me as particularly notable was his use of the phrase 'arbiters of truth,'" she wrote. "This phrase had become a meme among misinformation researchers because Facebook public relations reiterated it so often. Moreover, at that time Facebook was also pushing the idea that the words 'misinformation' and 'disinformation' were too ill defined to be enforced – so his questions matched Facebook’s public narrative."
Donovan likened Facebook's effort to muddy the definition of misinformation to the tobacco industry's efforts to undermine the notion that secondhand smoke harms human health in order to limit liability and regulatory intervention.
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Sofiya Cabalquinto, HKS chief communications officer, disputed Donovan's claims in a statement to The Register.
"The document's allegations of unfair treatment and donor interference are false," wrote Cabalquinto. "The narrative is full of inaccuracies and baseless insinuations, particularly the suggestion that Harvard Kennedy School allowed Facebook to dictate its approach to research."
Cabalquinto says TASC was shut down because school policy requires HKS research projects to be led by faculty members and the original project leader left. Donovan was staff, not faculty, and HKS could not find a replacement – so the project was shut down.
Cabalquinto also suggested that the $500 million donation from The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative has nothing to with the end of TASC, citing ongoing support for social media research via the Facebook Archive and the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review.
"By policy and in practice, donors have no influence over this or other work," argued Cabalquinto.
Meta, currently being sued by the majority of US states and hundreds of schools for allegedly ignoring the mental health consequences of its social media services, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The Chan Zuckerberg Initiative also did not respond.
In response to Harvard's media statement, Libby Liu, CEO of Whistleblower Aid, told The Register that the university's response was a missed opportunity to be transparent about donor influence.
"Whereas Dr Donovan provides nearly 250 pages of evidence in support of her claims, including voluminous correspondence with HKS staff, the university's terse and non-specific denial is inadequate and bereft of any substantiation whatsoever," argued Liu. "It underlines the need for a thorough and independent investigation.
"HKS reiterates that the absence of a faculty member overseeing Dr Donovan's work was the reason for the winding down of her project, without explaining why this was NOT a problem prior to her announcing that she was in possession of the Facebook Files and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative's $500 million donation."
While HKS claims that Donovan was not fired, because she was offered a part-time position in the wake of the TASC shutdown, Liu also dismissed that argument.
"This is a dodge to avoid real accountability for the millions of dollars in funding HKS took from her program when they terminated her position," she said. "The disclosure plainly shows HKS staff confirming she is being 'laid off.'" ®