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Harvard publication sued for defamation in ‘misinformation’ dispute

An attendee works on a laptop computer during the MarketplaceLIVE Hackathon.John Taggart/Bloomberg

Countless politicians and pundits call for crackdowns on Internet misinformation. But who decides when an online posting is misinformation, and not just a difference of opinion? And what if the decision-maker gets it wrong?

Harvard University is finding out.

A pair of Black political activists have filed a defamation suit in Middlesex Superior Court against the university, the Harvard Kennedy School, and 10 authors of a retracted academic paper that accused the activists of spreading online disinformation to suppress Black voter turnout.

Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore are leaders of a movement called ADOS, or American Descendants of Slavery. Carnell founded the ADOS Advocacy Foundation, a group that works to obtain trillions in financial reparations for Black people. ADOS has courted controversy by urging Black voters in 2020 not to vote for either Joe Biden or Donald Trump for president, but to vote for Democrats in down-ballot races.

ADOS came under fire in a January 2021 article published in the Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, an academic journal dedicated to studying the spread of false information.


The article claimed that ADOS’ activities “implicitly or explicitly support anti-Black political groups and causes.” The paper accused the foundation of spreading “right-wing talking points and news stories,” such as tweets critical of immigration. And it alleged that the foundation “has remained largely silent about the impact of the novel coronavirus on Black communities, undermining its claims to prioritize the interests of Black Americans.”

Carnell and Moore denied these allegations, saying that the ADOS voting strategy was a legitimate political tactic, not a trick to help the GOP. And they pointed to social media postings where ADOS leaders urged supporters to protect themselves from COVID infection. (The organization canceled its 2020 convention to prevent the spread of COVID.)

Faced with these criticisms, the Misinformation Review staff launched an internal review which “found flaws in the methodology, as well as discrepancies between the data and the findings reported by the authors,” according to a statement issued by the journal. A second review of the paper, conducted by a political science professor at Penn State University, reached similar conclusions.


Last December, the Misinformation Review announced its decision to retract the paper, saying that “certain of the principal conclusions reported in this paper cannot be considered reliable or valid.”

But Carnell and Moore want more than a retraction. They’re demanding unspecified damages for defamation, negligence, and infliction of emotional distress. Among the defendants listed in the lawsuitis the left-wing political organization MoveOn.org. Five of the paper’s co-authors are members of the group, which backed Joe Biden for the presidency.

Carnell told the Globe earlier this year that she believes the journal article was a deliberate effort by MoveOn.org to cripple her organization, rather than an attempt at objective scientific research.

Lance Filer, an attorney who represents Carnell and Moore, said the Misinformation Review article continues to do serious harm to the reputation of the ADOS foundation. Filer said that merely retracting the article was not enough, calling it an “insufficient attempt to unring the bell.”

A spokesman for the Harvard Kennedy School said that because the matter is being litigated in court, the school would not comment.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.