Mark Zuckerberg donation of $500 million alleged to have pressured Harvard University into firing misinformation expert
Meta Platforms and CEO Mark Zuckerberg have been accused of allegedly playing a role in the termination of a disinformation researcher.
CNN reported that former Harvard University disinformation scholar, Dr Joan Donovan, alleged she had been pushed out of her job after the college faced pressure from Facebook.
Details of the disclosure were first reported by The Washington Post. Dr Donavan alleged that she had been fired by Harvard University for criticising Meta Platforms, at a time that the college was being pledged $500 million from Mark Zuckerberg’s charity (Chan Zuckerberg Initiative).
Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan are both Harvard alumni, and have given the institution hundreds of millions of dollars, including promising $500m to the school’s Kempner Institute for the Study of Natural and Artificial Intelligence.
According to the report, Dr Donovan in a disclosure sent last week to Harvard leaders and US Education Secretary Miguel Cardona (which was made public on Monday), alleged that the University began restricting her research after the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative donated $500 million to fund a new university-wide centre on artificial intelligence.
After the donation, it is alleged that Harvard University dismantled its prestigious team of online disinformation experts.
Dr Donovan alleged 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 analysing thousands of documents exposing Facebook’s knowledge of how the platform has caused significant public harm.
In her whistleblower declaration, Donovan alleged how she and her research team 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.”
This references a bombshell leak in 2021 of 22,000 pages of Facebook’s internal documents leaked by Frances Haugen, who used to work at the company.
Dr Donovan began publishing them to Harvard’s website for anyone to access.
Dr Donovan claims her funding was cut off, she could not hire assistants and she was made the target of a smear campaign by Harvard employees.
And in a legal filing with the US education department and the Massachusetts attorney general first published by the Washington Post, she said her right to free speech had been abrogated.
In 2022 Dr Donovan alleged she was told her main project would be wound down.
In 2023 Harvard University reportedly eliminated her position.
Meanwhile James Francis Smith, a spokesperson for Harvard University said in a statement to CNN that, “allegations of unfair treatment and donor interference are false. The narrative is full of inaccuracies and baseless insinuations, particularly the suggestion that Harvard Kennedy School allowed Facebook to dictate its approach to research.”
“By longstanding policy to uphold academic standards, all research projects at Harvard Kennedy School need to be led by faculty members. Joan Donovan was hired as a staff member (not a faculty member) to manage a media manipulation project,” the spokesman reportedly said.
“When the original faculty leader of the project left Harvard, the School tried for some time to identify another faculty member who had time and interest to lead the project. 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,” he reportedly said.
The spokesman added that Harvard continues to research misinformation and social media’s role in it.
Meanwhile the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative was quoted by CNN as saying it had no involvement in Donovan’s departure from Harvard.
“CZI … was unaware of that development before public reporting on it,” a Chan Zuckerberg Initiative spokesperson reportedly said in a statement.
Meta reportedly declined to comment.