Disinformation researcher Joan Donovan testifying remotely during a U.S. Senate hearing in April 2021. Donovan contends she lost her job at Harvard University due to pressure from the social media company, Meta.

Disinformation researcher Joan Donovan testifying remotely during a U.S. Senate hearing in April 2021. Donovan contends she lost her job at Harvard University due to pressure from the social media company, Meta. / Getty Images

A well-known online disinformation researcher has accused Harvard University of pushing her out and shutting down her work to shield the school's relationship with Facebook owner Meta.

In a legal filing sent to the U.S. Department of Education and the Massachusetts attorney general's office, Joan Donovan accused the university of violating her free speech rights and the school's own commitment to academic freedom "in order to protect the interests of high-value donors with obvious and direct ties to Meta/Facebook."

Donovan alleged the pressure campaign came as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the charitable organization established by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, that was pledging $500 million to fund a new university-wide center on artificial intelligence at Harvard.

"There are a handful of tried-and-true means to coerce someone or some entity to do something they would not otherwise do, and influence through financial compensation is at or near the top of the list," Donovan's attorneys wrote in the filing. "Objectively, $500 million is certainly significant financial influence."

Donovan had worked at the Harvard Kennedy School's Shorenstein Center since 2018, serving as research director and leading its Technology and Social Change Research Project, which studied media manipulation campaigns. She was a prominent expert on social media and online disinformation, testifying before Congress, raising millions of dollars in grant funding, and being frequently cited by news media, including NPR.

Donovan alleged a project she was involved in to publish thousands of internal Facebook documents leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen was the trigger that led Harvard to shut down her work last year and ultimately eliminate her role. In August, Donovan was hired as an assistant professor at Boston University.

The filing asks for a formal investigation by federal education officials into whether Harvard was "inappropriately influenced by Meta" and whether it was misleading donors and misappropriating money given to fund Donovan's work, among other things. Donovan is being represented by Whistleblower Aid, a nonprofit organization that also represented Haugen in her complaint against Facebook.

Harvard disputed Donovan's claims. Her "allegations of unfair treatment and donor interference are false," Kennedy School spokesperson James Smith said in a statement. "The narrative is full of inaccuracies and baseless insinuations, particularly the suggestion that Harvard Kennedy School allowed Facebook to dictate its approach to research."

A spokesperson for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative said in a statement: "CZI had no involvement in Dr. Donovan's departure from Harvard and was unaware of that development before public reporting on it."

Latanya Sweeney, a Harvard professor who worked with Donovan on the Facebook documents project, known as FBarchive, also denied Donovan's accusations in a response shared with NPR by Smith.

"The number and nature of inaccuracies and falsehoods in the document are so abundant and self-serving as to be horribly disappointing," Sweeney said. "Meta exerted no influence over FBarchive or any of our/my work. Just a few weeks ahead of the public launch, we offered Meta the chance to review the archive for security and privacy concerns and suggest redactions, which we independently elected to accept or reject."

Smith said Harvard Kennedy School's "longstanding policy" requires all research projects to be led by faculty members, and Donovan was staff, not faculty. "When the original faculty leader of the project left Harvard, 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. Joan Donovan was not fired, and most members of the research team chose to remain at the School in new roles," Smith said.

He added that Harvard continues to research misinformation and social media.

Meta declined to comment.

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