“Inside Harvard’s misinformation meltdown”

Ben Smith and Louise Matsakis for Semafor:

Joan Donovan, Research Director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, is a defining and combative voice in the study of how false information travels on the internet. She became a prominent commentator after the 2016 election of Donald Trump, when many Democrats blamed misinformation on social media for his election.

Her departure is tangled up in the arguments over whether misinformation is an academic pursuit or a partisan one, and it played out inside a cautious, American institution trying to hold a shrinking political center. “The Kennedy School’s decision to force out Joan Donovan and her team raises real questions about the school’s willingness to support critical and controversial work focused on democracy and technology,” said Garrett Graff, director of cyber initiatives at the Aspen Institute, which also invested in misinformation research.

Donovan’s public profile dominated the Shorenstein Center’s public image. She wrote opinion pieces for places like The New York Times, Wired, and The Atlantic, was regularly quoted by journalists at many outlets, and appeared on CNN and MSNBC. In October 2020, the House Intelligence Committee  invited her to testify on misinformation and conspiracy theories.

But behind the scenes, Donovan was also a source of discomfort for the Kennedy School, which has battled a kind of second-class status at Harvard as an institution run by journalists and politicians within a university dominated by superstar academics….

Donovan clashed with powerful social media platforms, which are a source of both data and funding to many other scholars. That conflict became clear during a private, virtual meeting of the Kennedy School’s “Dean’s Council” on October 29, 2021, where Donovan presented to the school’s top supporters on “Curbing the Damage Caused by Misinformation.”

One of the council’s members was Eliot Schrage, the former head of policy at Facebook. He aggressively challenged the premise of Donovan’s work, according to two people present. He delivered Facebook’s perspective that the platform should not be the arbiter of truth and falsity, and that journalists and academics often tag politics they don’t like as “misinformation.” (Donovan declined to comment on her status at the Kennedy School. Schrage declined to comment for this story.)

Donovan’s supporters believe her involvement with an archive of documents leaked by former Facebook whistleblower Francis Haugen led to her dismissal, though there’s no clear evidence directly linking the moves. Facebook’s then-COO Sheryl Sandberg gave more than $5 million to the Kennedy School between 2012 and 2018, according to a school report.

Share this: