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Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review Retracts Article, Admitting Editorial 'Failure'

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The Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review has admitted to publishing misinformation.

The journal, published by HKS’s Shorenstein Center, retracted an article last month that concluded a slavery reparations advocacy group discouraged Black voters from participating in the 2020 presidential election.

The group in question, the American Descendants of Slavery Advocacy Foundation, publicly refuted the article’s findings, leading the journal to launch internal and external reviews of the research.

The reviews, which concluded in August, found mistakes and data discrepancies in the study, calling into question its conclusions. The Misinformation Review retracted the article, titled “Disinformation creep: ADOS and the strategic weaponization of breaking news,” on Dec. 20, writing in an editor's note that the authors admitted “defects” in their work.

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“The retraction decision was not taken lightly but is one that we feel was necessary, as certain of the principal conclusions reported in this paper cannot be considered reliable or valid,” the Misinformation Review’s editorial staff wrote. “It is important to acknowledge that this outcome also represents a failure of the journal’s editorial process.”

The article underwent three peer-reviews and one editorial review prior to publication, according to Maria Y. Rodriguez, a co-author of the article.

The journal pledged to review its practices “to prevent similar occurrences in the future.”

The article concluded that ADOS used discussions of current events on Twitter to support “anti-Black political groups and causes, strategically discouraging Black voters from voting for the Democratic party.”

The external review — written by Bruce Desmarais of Pennsylvania State University — found that the article relied on a small subset of tweets from ADOS’ co-founders, Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore, to demonstrate that the group attempted to dissuade its Black Americans from voting — conclusions that were “insufficiently connected” to the quantitative analysis.

In a written response to the Misinformation Review’s retraction that was obtained by The Crimson, the co-authors criticized the Misinformation Review for not conducting a more rigorous pre-publication review of the piece. They added that issues raised post-publication could not have been known at the time research was conducted.

The 10 co-authors also accused the Misinformation Review of failing to defend them against ADOS criticism.

“Instead of using Harvard’s institutional power to shield authors from blowback, the publication risks becoming a lens to focus greater blowback on authors,” they wrote. “At the very least, it should put resources into raising these issues pre-publication, rather than post-publication.”

Rodriguez, an assistant professor at the University of Buffalo, said she still stands by the work.

“I personally think that this paper was done well, and I have received that feedback from colleagues,” she said in an interview. “It's unfortunate that it was retracted, but I don't have control over that.”

Natascha Chtena, editor-in-chief of the HKS Misinformation Review, declined to comment beyond the retraction note.

In a rebuttal to the article published on its website, ADOS denied discouraging its supporters from voting. The organization wrote that it primarily promotes candidates who align with its calls for reparations and aim to break down racial barriers faced by Black Americans.

“In the absence of such a candidate, ADOS has consistently advocated voting down ballot Democrat on Election Day; that is, voting along the Democratic Party line below the President,” ADOS wrote. “This tactic is not, as the report’s authors disingenuously suggest, a withdrawal from the electoral process and civic engagement; nor is it an approach that implicitly indicates support for the Republican Party.”

ADOS’s rebuttal alleged the article was part of a “smear campaign” by progressive political action committee and advocacy group MoveOn, which employed five of the article’s 10 authors at the time of publication. MoveOn “​​assisted with data collection and management,” according to a disclosure in the article.

“With the relatively new Harvard Kennedy School Misinformation Review, MoveOn appears to have found a propaganda-friendly platform to carry out a dishonest delegitimization campaign against our movement,” ADOS wrote.

The Misinformation Review, established in 2019, publishes work from academics studying misinformation and disinformation. Articles are submitted to the journal through an accelerated peer-review system, described on the publication’s website as a “new format of peer-reviewed, scholarly publication.”

The Misinformation Review publishes research within two months after submission, according to the journal’s website.

In its rebuttal, ADOS decried the journal’s fast-track peer-review method, writing that it “de-emphasizes academic rigor in favor of disseminating information that may or may not be accurate.”

Carnell, an ADOS co-founder, frequently used the hashtags #CrimsonSmear and #PoisonIvy in tweets demanding a retraction.

Rodriguez, one of the co-authors, said ADOS “trolled” her as part of its retraction campaign.

“I received lots of mentions from people that I didn’t know who were calling me many things online, to the point where I invested in some sort of third party support for my account,” Rodriguez said.

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