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Harvard Misinformation Expert Joan Donovan Forced to Leave by Kennedy School Dean, Sources Say

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UPDATED: February 2, 2023, at 9:48 p.m.

{shortcode-1f83bfd9335e43d71a36e9e0221975096693f44f}arvard Kennedy School Dean Douglas W. Elmendorf is forcing out online misinformation expert Joan M. Donovan from her role at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and ending her research project, according to three HKS staff members with knowledge of the situation.

Donovan was told she has until summer 2024 to end the Technology and Social Change project and depart from her role at HKS, according to the staff members. Donovan, who is not a tenure-track professor, has led the project since its inception in 2019 and serves as the Shorenstein Center’s research director. Donovan has also taught at HKS as an adjunct lecturer in public policy.

In addition, Donovan was told her prominence at the school led Elmendorf to end her time at the Shorenstein Center, two HKS staff members said.

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HKS spokesperson James F. Smith confirmed in an emailed statement that the project is ending.

“The Technology and Social Change project is winding down — through an extended transition — because it does not have intellectual and academic leadership by a full HKS faculty member, as required of all long-term research and outreach projects at HKS,” Smith wrote.

As part of the School’s decision to end the Technology and Social Change project, Donovan is not allowed to raise new funding, according to the three HKS staff members. The project is also facing a hiring freeze and spending constraints on existing funding, the staff members said.

Donovan declined to comment on her status at HKS and the termination of her project.

Donovan received her Ph.D. in sociology and science studies from the University of California San Diego in 2015, before joining the Data and Society Research Institute in 2016, where she served as research lead on a team studying media manipulation.

In 2019, Donovan joined the Shorenstein Center to serve as the director and lead researcher of the Technology and Social Change project.

At Harvard, Donovan was a leading force in bringing the study of misinformation and disinformation to prominence in academia. Donovan has testified in front of House and Senate subcommittees on the spread of misinformation online.

Tensions between Elmendorf and Donovan rose in fall 2021, according to three HKS staff members, around when Donovan started to work on HKS’ Facebook archive project, fbarchive.org. The archive will provide researchers and journalists with access to photos of documents obtained by Frances B. Haugen, the 2021 Facebook whistleblower who disclosed internal Facebook research on its technologies’ negative effects.

A year later, at the start of the fall 2022 semester, Donovan was informed that the Technology and Social Change project would ultimately end in summer 2024.

In mid-September 2022, HKS professor Latanya A. Sweeney joined Donovan as co-principal investigator for the Technology and Social Change project, the first time Donovan was not its sole head.

Donovan taught the HKS course Democracy, Politics and Institutions 622: “Media Manipulation and Disinformation Campaigns” and co-authored a widely-read study in July 2022 that found a plurality of participants in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol were motivated by their support for Trump. In September 2022, Donovan published a book titled “Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America” about the online spread of right-wing media political conspiracy theories.

Smith, an HKS spokesperson, wrote in the statement that the school is continuing to promote scholarship in the field of misinformation and disinformation.

“Harvard Kennedy School is committed to the teaching and study of misinformation and disinformation, and several faculty members are leading significant projects that address these topics,” he wrote.

In a Thursday morning email obtained by The Crimson, Shorenstein Center Director Nancy R. Gibbs wrote to center affiliates that the decision to shut down the Technology and Social Change project was “solely driven” by HKS policy of only allowing full professors to lead research projects.

“While there can be limited exceptions, those can't continue indefinitely without a faculty member as the principal project leader and academic head,” Gibbs wrote in the email.

Donovan declined to comment on the contents of the letter.

The Technology and Social Change project — which lists a team of more than 25 people on its website including staff, fellows, contributing researchers, and research assistants — has been led by Donovan since 2019.

Gibbs sent the email hours after The Crimson first reported that HKS would end the Technology and Social Change project by summer 2024.

Gibbs wrote that other initiatives led by faculty members related to the study of misinformation and disinformation would continue at the Shorenstein Center, including the Facebook archive project and the Misinformation Review, an online academic journal.

In recent weeks, Elmendorf has been the subject of controversy.

He faced backlash in January over his rejection of a fellowship for former Human Rights Watch head Kenneth Roth. Elmendorf, who allegedly blocked Roth over anti-Israel criticism, reversed his decision after more than 1,000 Harvard affiliates signed an open letter calling for his resignation.

—Staff writer Miles J. Herszenhorn can be reached at miles.herszenhorn@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @MHerszenhorn.

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