Harvard Gutted Initial Team Examining Facebook Files Following $500 Million Donation from Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Whistleblower Aid Client Reveals
University’s Former Disinformation Expert Joan Donovan Calls for Investigation
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Harvard University dismantled its prestigious team of online disinformation experts after a foundation run by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan donated $500 million to the university, a whistleblower disclosure filed by Whistleblower Aid reveals.
Dr. Joan Donovan, one of the world’s leading experts on social media disinformation, says she ran into a wall of institutional resistance and eventual termination after she and her team at Harvard’s Technology and Social Change Research Project (TASC) began analyzing thousands of documents exposing Facebook’s knowledge of how the platform has caused significant public harm..
In her whistleblower declaration, Donovan lays out in detail how she and her research team at Harvard’s Kennedy School (HKS) came under sudden scrutiny from the school’s dean, Douglas Elmendorf, and other Kennedy School leaders, after they started working on Haugen’s Facebook Files – a cache Donovan describes as “the most important documents in the history of the internet.”
TASC rose in size, prominence, and resources under Dr. Donovan’s leadership – and Dr. Donovan was elevated to Research Director of the Shorenstein Center for her success.
The importance and prestige of TASC’s work became irrelevant to Dean Elmendorf when in October 2021 Dr. Donovan announced she had lawfully received the Facebook Files at a HKS Dean’s Council meeting, which was attended by a Facebook PR executive who became irate when she discussed it. She intended to create a public archive with a collaborative platform, where participants could publish research and her team would host workshops for researchers and journalists on how to analyze the extensive trove of internal documents. Following the meeting, Dean Elmendorf began a two year campaign to purge Dr. Donovan, silence her voice, decrease her public profile, and stifle her team’s impactful research.
Suddenly her work became a threat to some of HKS’s most treasured donor relationships – just as Harvard was finalizing the largest donation the school had ever received, $500 million from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative in December 2021.
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. 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.
Meta could not use any of its previously reported tactics to silence other researchers as Dr. Donovan’s research neither relies on access to their data nor would she accept any grants affiliated with any company she researches.
“The mood changed overnight. The work we were doing turned from a source of pride for Harvard into a source of shame,” wrote Dr. Donovan. “Instead of seizing on an extraordinary opportunity to further our knowledge of social media platforms and how they work hidden from public scrutiny, the university subjected my team and our projects to death by a thousand cuts.”
In sending the lawful whistleblower disclosure to the President and General Counsel of Harvard University, the U.S. Department of Education, and subsequently to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office, Dr. Donovan and Whistleblower Aid are calling for an urgent and impartial investigation into inappropriate influence at the Harvard Kennedy School.
“This is a shocking betrayal of Harvard’s academic integrity and the public interest,” said Libby Liu, CEO of Whistleblower Aid. “We’ve seen in the past how Big Tobacco, Big Energy and Big Pharma have succeeded in influencing, undermining, and co-opting research to protect their lies, their profits and evade accountability. Now Meta, with the complicity of a powerful ally, is following the same playbook. Whether Harvard acted at the company’s direction or took the initiative on their own to protect Meta’s interests, the outcome is the same: corporate interests are undermining research and academic freedom to the detriment of the public.”
Dr. Donovan, now an Assistant Professor at Boston University, was hired by the Kennedy School in 2018 and served as the Director of TASC and was promoted to Research Director of the Shorenstein Center in early 2020. She lectured for several years on media manipulation and disinformation at HKS.
Alongside her team, Dr. Donovan set out to make sure the public, lawmakers, regulators, and academics could all analyze the Facebook Files, opening the doors to unprecedented and transparent public collaboration allowing for public accountability. Her team’s vision of a global research collaborative that openly analyzes the Facebook Files remains, to this day, largely unrealized.
At a time of unprecedented legal scrutiny of Meta by both states and the Federal Trade Commission, Meta has benefited tremendously from the curtailing, delaying, and undermining of this research by the Kennedy School leadership.
This case represents a watershed opportunity for lawmakers, regulators, and academia to address the pervasive and detrimental tactics deployed by powerful and wealthy interests like Big Tech to influence vital public interest research. The inadequate safeguards that exist in law, regulation, practice, and academic integrity by universities require meaningful reform.
“If the most powerful university in the world cannot safeguard the integrity of public interest research in the face of corporate influence-buying, what hope is there for any other research institution?” Libby Liu said. “What hope is there for rank and file academics seeking to pursue the truth and hold power to account?”
Whistleblower Aid is a non-profit legal organization in Washington, D.C. supporting individuals who lawfully report government and corporate law breaking. It provides assistance to individuals in the United States and abroad seeking to disclose illegal conduct, including misconduct relating to government officials, securities fraud, sexual violence, and violations of tax, labor or environmental laws. In recent years Whistleblower Aid lawyers have represented Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen and the intelligence community whistleblower whose disclosures led to the first impeachment of President Trump. if you are looking for pest control or mice control services please check this out