Whistleblower allegation: Harvard muzzled disinfo team after $500 million Zuckerberg donation

Joan Donovan, then-research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, speaks remotely during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law in 2021 on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Al Drago/Pool Photo via AP, File)

A prominent disinformation scholar who left Harvard University in August has accused the school of muzzling her speech and stifling — then dismantling — her research team as it launched a deep dive in late 2021 into a trove of Facebook files she considers the most important documents in internet history.

The actions impacting Joan Donovan’s work coincided with a $500 million donation to Harvard by a foundation run by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan. In a whistleblower disclosure made public Monday, Donovan seeks investigations into “inappropriate influence” from Harvard’s general counsel, the Massachusetts attorney general’s office and the U.S. Department of Education.


The CEO of Whisteblower Aid, a legal nonprofit supporting Donovan, called the alleged behavior by Harvard’s Kennedy School and its dean a “shocking betrayal” of academic integrity at the elite school.

“Whether Harvard acted at the company’s direction or took the initiative on their own to protect (Facebook’s) interests, the outcome is the same: corporate interests are undermining research and academic freedom to the detriment of the public,” CEO Libby Liu said in a press statement.

In response, the Kennedy School rejected the disclosure’s allegations of unfair treatment and donor interference. “The narrative is full of inaccuracies and baseless insinuations, particularly the suggestion that Harvard Kennedy School allowed Facebook to dictate its approach to research,” spokesman James F. Smith said in a statement.

The Whistleblower Aid statement quotes Donovan accusing Dean Douglas Elmendorf of subjecting her team to “death by a thousand cuts” after she began making robust plans in October 2021 to create a research clearinghouse for the so-called Facebook Files, which were gathered by former employee Frances Haugen to highlight public harms.

Following the disclosures, Zuckerberg changed Facebook’s name to Meta.

Despite the company’s public stance that Haugen was blowing internal research out of proportion, Donovan and other independent researchers considered the documents confirmation that Facebook’s design had radicalized people, its algorithms fomenting racial animosity, encouraging ethnic cleansing and damaging teen mental health.

Donovan claimed Elmendorf “made it so that I couldn’t hire and I couldn’t start doing projects,” halting her fundraising, barring her from holding conferences with more than 30 attendees, and preventing her from launching “a podcast because he didn’t want to, quote unquote, raise my public profile.” She said that led her to halt media interviews and publish opinion pieces.

“Our plan was to go at the elections in 2024,” Donovan said. “I had raised. $4.5 million at one point so that we could do our work through 2024.”

Donovan said that after her contract was cut short, she refused a severance package because she felt she would be complicit “if I were to take in a payoff for my silence.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


By participating in online discussions you acknowledge that you have agreed to the Star-Advertiser's TERMS OF SERVICE. An insightful discussion of ideas and viewpoints is encouraged, but comments must be civil and in good taste, with no personal attacks. If your comments are inappropriate, you may be banned from posting. To report comments that you believe do not follow our guidelines, email hawaiiwarriorworld@staradvertiser.com.