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Harvard winding down misinformation expert Joan Donovan’s research over school policy

Joan Donovan, the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard.Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

The Harvard Kennedy School plans to wind down a research project led by prominent misinformation expert Joan Donovan, who is the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy.

Started in 2019, the Technology and Social Change Project studies how media manipulation impacts public conversation, democracy, and society. News of the project winding down, which was first reported by The Harvard Crimson on Thursday, sparked backlash from researchers and journalists on social media.

The work must end because of a school policy, which requires all research projects be led by full faculty members, said Nancy Gibbs, director of the Shorenstein Center, in an e-mail obtained by the Globe.

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“While there can be limited exceptions, those can’t continue indefinitely,” she wrote in a note to staff Thursday. “The decision to wind the TaSC project down is solely driven by that policy, which has been followed across the school for many years.”

In a separate e-mail sent to Shorenstein Center advisory board members on Friday, Gibbs addressed the widespread attention the situation has garnered.

“This just reminded me that people outside of academia (including me before I came here) often don’t know the details about how the place works or how research is organized and supervised,” she wrote.

Donovan declined to comment for this story.

Gibbs said in the e-mail to staff that Harvard Kennedy School dean Doug Elmendorf told Donovan last summer that the Technology and Social Change Project would need to wind down by June 2024, since research at the school must be led by a faculty member. The project is fully funded until then, but Elmendorf said Donovan could not expand with new funding, staff, or large new initiatives.

During her time at Harvard, Donovan has become one of the most high-profile researchers on online extremism, media manipulation, and disinformation campaigns. She is regularly quoted by media outlets, has testified before Congress, and recently published “Meme Wars,” a book she coauthored with two other members of the Technology and Social Change Project.

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Though Harvard says its decision stems from a school policy, it has prompted some people in academic and media circles to speak out about the importance of Donovan’s work. Laura Edelson, a postdoctoral researcher in computer science at New York University, said what was done to Donovan is “frightening.”

“We’re in a race to study how and why social media is so vulnerable to misinformation so we can make these systems safer,” Edelson wrote on Twitter. “We need her research, and we need her.”

Taylor Lorenz, a tech columnist at the Washington Post, tweeted that “This is absolutely horrible news, this team was doing essential work demystifying the way bad actors manipulate the internet.”

Gibbs wrote in her e-mail that other work on misinformation at the school will continue, such as at The Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review and the Public Interest Tech Lab, which are run by full faculty members.

Donovan received a PhD in sociology and science studies from the University of California San Diego in 2015. Donovan led research on media manipulation and platform accountability at the Data and Society Research Institute in New York before coming to the Shorenstein Center in 2018.


Anissa Gardizy can be reached at anissa.gardizy@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @anissagardizy8 and on Instagram @anissagardizy.journalism.