Joan Donovan, a prominent online disinformation specialist, is seeking “an urgent and impartial investigation” into allegations of improper donor influence at Harvard University’s Kennedy School, which she claims fired her after she began analyzing a trove of documents pointing to “significant public harm” caused by Facebook parent Meta.
Donovan alleges in a whistle-blower complaint filed on Monday that she met resistance from her superiors, culminating in her termination, as the university was discussing a $500 million gift from a foundation run by Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, in December 2021.
An expert on disinformation and a vocal critic of Meta, Donovan joined the Kennedy School in 2018 and served as director of the Harvard Technology and Social Change Research Project.
Harvard rejected Donovan’s claims on Monday, saying Facebook didn’t exert influence on the school’s research, and that Donovan was not fired.
“The [whistle-blower] document’s allegations of unfair treatment and donor interference are false,” a Kennedy School spokesperson 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.”
But Whistleblower Aid, a legal nonprofit representing Donovan, alleged that her team came under pressure in October 2021, when she announced during a university meeting that she had legally obtained the so-called Facebook Files.
The Facebook Files include internal communications, presentations, and research that show the social media giant tracked real-world harms exacerbated by its platforms, while its executives weighed public safety against the company’s interests.
They were disclosed to the US Securities and Exchange Commission by whistle-blower Frances Haugen and later provided to Congress and certain news organizations.
Donovan said at the meeting that she planned to “create a public archive” of the documents and host workshops for researchers and journalists, according to the Whistleblower Aid statement. But a “Facebook PR executive” at the meeting became “irate” when Donovan discussed the matter, the group alleged.
“Following the meeting, [Kennedy School] Dean [Douglas] Elmendorf began a two-year campaign to purge Dr. Donovan, silence her voice, decrease her public profile, and stifle her team’s impactful research,” the group alleged.
Elmendorf did not respond to a Globe request for comment. Donovan, now an assistant professor at Boston University, referred questions to Whistleblower Aid, which is based in Washington, D.C.
Leaders at the Kennedy School began targeting Donovan’s Technology and Social Change Research Project, putting up “restrictions and bureaucratic hurdles” to impede its work, ending in the dissolution of the project and Donovan’s termination last summer, according to the Whistleblower Aid statement.
“The mood changed overnight,” Donovan said in the statement. “The work we were doing turned from a source of pride for Harvard into a source of shame. 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 August 2022, Elmendorf placed Donovan on a hiring and fund-raising freeze and told her she lacked legal rights to her own research, according to the complaint. In January 2023, she was allegedly barred from public events or from communicating with donors or supporters.
In August, the Globe reported that Donovan was told by school officials that the Technology and Social Change Project would wind down because of its internal policy that research projects can only be led by full faculty members. Donovan was not on a tenure track at Harvard.
Lawyers for Donovan allege that Elmendorf told her in a one-on-one meeting that she did not have academic freedom at the Kennedy School, since Donovan was staff instead of faculty.
But Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard Law professor who made inquiries to university administrators on Donovan’s behalf, told the Globe Monday that policy should apply to staff such as secretaries and librarians, who are not charged with conducting academic research, and not to high-profile researchers like Donovan.
Lessig said he believes Donovan’s work deserves academic freedom.
“If you set up a research center, and you fund it through work that’s supposedly supporting academic research, and the head of it is doing academic research, then we shouldn’t have this kind of double standard,” Lessig said. “If Harvard’s going to set up something that looks like [a duck], walks like a duck, and talks like a duck, then it ought to treat it like a duck.”
Donovan’s 248-page whistle-blower disclosure was sent to Harvard, the US Department of Education, and the Massachusetts attorney general’s office.
Donovan is asking the Department of Education’s civil rights division to investigate whether the university violated her right to free speech and her academic freedom. She is asking the state attorney general to investigate whether Harvard misused or donor funds earmarked for her research.
She is also asking Harvard to investigate whether the Kennedy School’s conduct violated university policies.
The AG’s office received Donovan’s filing and is currently reviewing it, according to a spokesperson who did not provide additional details. A Department of Education spokesperson said its Office of Civil Rights does not confirm whether it has received complaints.
The Kennedy School said that when the faculty leader of Donovan’s project left Harvard, the school tried to find a replacement. “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,” spokesperson James F. Smith said in a statement.
Smith also defended the school’s research.
“Harvard University and Harvard Kennedy School continue to carry out pathbreaking research on misinformation and the role of social media in society,” Smith said. “For example, a Kennedy School faculty member has constructed and posted online the Facebook Archive, the only academic archive that makes available to researchers thousands of leaked Facebook documents.”
Donovan, who had a $3 million annual research budget, alleged that she faced internal resistance in hiring, bringing in fellows, and starting a podcast after Harvard accepted the $500 million donation.
“Tech companies have moved large amounts of funding into universities,” Donovan told the Globe in August. “From my standpoint, if we’re going to do accountability research, we’re going to upset industry elites.”
The Kennedy School denied at the time that the gift played any role in the decision to end Donovan’s project. A spokesperson said then that the research being carried out would continue at the school, including through The Facebook Archive Project.
Representatives of Meta did not reply to requests for comment.
Material from The Washington Post was used in this report.