Joan Donovan says Meta’s influence on Harvard led to her firing

One of the most respected researchers on social media and disinformation whose sudden departure from Harvard University made waves throughout the industry was the source of a whistleblower disclosure Monday against the university.

The disclosure is the latest development in a dispute between the university and Joan Donovan that began in 2019. It could have far-reaching implications for academic freedom, social media research and donor relations at universities. 

The disclosure alleged that financial and personal relationships between the university, its staff and executives at Facebook-owner Meta led to Donovan’s dismissal. Donovan is now a professor at Boston University and founded the nonprofit Critical Internet Studies Institute to support her independent research.

Whistleblower Aid, a legal group that has shepherded several notable tech insiders through the process of filing complaints against their former employers, published the 248-page disclosure addressed to Harvard President Claudine Gay, its general counsel and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona on Monday.

The disclosure urges Gay to conduct an investigation into Donovan’s claims “and take any and all appropriate corrective action to protect academic integrity and freedom going forward.”

The Massachusetts Office of the Attorney General told CNBC that it was reviewing the disclosure. The Education Department told NBC News that it does not confirm complaints publicly.

In a statement provided to NBC News, Harvard spokesperson James Francis Smith wrote that the “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.”

Smith wrote that Donovan, then a staff member at the school as opposed to a member of faculty, was forced to end her projects at the university because it could not find a new faculty member to head up her initiatives. 

“By longstanding policy to uphold academic standards, all research projects at Harvard Kennedy School need to be led by faculty members,” Smith wrote. “Joan Donovan was hired as a staff member (not a faculty member) to manage a media manipulation project. 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.” 

Meta declined to comment for this article. A representative for the philanthropic organization of Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, told CNBC that the group “had no involvement” in Donovan’s “departure from Harvard and was unaware of that development before public reporting on it.”

Donovan had been the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, part of the Harvard Kennedy School, where she ran the technology and social change project, from 2019 until February, when she separated from the university. In that role, she had emerged as an authoritative voice on the intersection of social media and topics including extremism, media manipulation and foreign interference.

Donovan was also among the most critical voices looking at social media companies, comparing their tactics to how tobacco companies misled the public about the impacts of their products.

Much of her work focused on Meta, including a project focused on the vast trove of documents leaked by former Facebook product manager Frances Haugen that showed among other things that company executives had been aware of the negative effects of its platforms on some of its young users. Facebook pushed back on those allegations, arguing that the reporting and documents had been cherry-picked and that positive conclusions found in the documents had been ignored.

The leaks triggered a wave of negative attention for the company including congressional hearings, and Facebook announced a corporate reorganization under the name Meta soon after. Whistleblower Aid also represented Haugen. One of Donovan’s projects was a searchable public archive of the documents.

Donovan alleges that Meta’s growing influence with the university — including a $500 million pledge from the nonprofit organization started by Zuckerberg and Chan — led to her exit. 

“Dr. Donovan’s personal experience and documentary evidence establishes that in order to protect the interests of high-value donors with obvious and direct ties to Meta/Facebook, Kennedy School leadership began to target Dr. Donovan’s team, their work, and her personally in an effort to diminish — if not destroy — their research and public engagement despite the ample funding raised by Dr. Donovan, which still resides in Harvard University’s bank account,” Whistleblower Aid wrote in the disclosure.

The whistleblower disclosure says that she was dismissed more than a year before her contract as research director was set to expire. As a staff member without tenure, she was not protected by the job security that tenured academic faculty enjoy. The archive of leaked Facebook documents remains online at its own URL. 

The same month Donovan began her term at Harvard, a separate misinformation initiative called First Draft led by Claire Wardle separated from the Shorenstein Center. At the time, Wardle told Poynter that the separation was preceded by “misunderstanding and miscommunication.” A Harvard representative did not elaborate on the separation in statements to Poynter or NBC News. Wardle, who now co-leads the Information Futures Lab at Brown University, did not respond to a request for comment from NBC News or comment publicly on Donovan’s allegations. 

At least one former colleague of Donovan’s has pushed back on her allegations. Harvard professor Latanya Sweeney, who worked with Donovan on the Facebook archive project, called aspects of Donovan’s complaints inaccurate in a statement provided to NBC News by a Harvard spokesperson.

“The number and nature of inaccuracies and falsehoods in the document are so abundant and self-serving as to be horribly disappointing,” Sweeney said in the statement. “Meta exerted no influence over FBarchive or any of our/my work.”

Sweeney did not immediately respond to a request for comment from NBC News, and Donovan did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Sweeney’s statement.