Misinformation expert fired by Harvard following $500 million donation by Zuckerberg charity

There are concerns that Big Tech companies like Meta are increasingly capitalising on opportunities to consolidate their information power, raising questions about their legitimacy in education and academia.

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Joan Donovan, a renowned misinformation expert, alleges that Harvard University terminated her due to her vocal criticism of Meta, formerly known as Facebook. The timing of her dismissal coincides with Harvard receiving a substantial $500 million pledge from Mark Zuckerberg’s charity.

Donovan claims that her funding was abruptly cut off, she was denied the ability to hire assistants, and she became the target of a smear campaign orchestrated by Harvard employees. These allegations surfaced after Donovan published the Facebook papers, a leak comprising 22,000 pages of internal documents from Facebook, made public on Harvard’s website. According to Donovan, the university’s treatment of her shifted from when she started disclosing these documents, eventually resulting in her job loss.

In a media statement, Harvard Kennedy School asserts that Donovan’s departure was unrelated to her criticism of Meta. They contend that the university struggled to find a faculty sponsor to oversee her, following university policy, and clarified that she was not terminated but offered to continue as a part-time adjunct lecturer, a proposal she declined.

The claims were documented in a legal case submitted to the US Education Department and the Massachusetts attorney general, with assistance from Whistleblower Aid. Despite the serious allegations, Harvard denies any wrongdoing, stating that Donovan’s task force was gradually phased out over a year following the departure of the original faculty leader of the project.

Why does it matter?

This filing raises broader questions about the influence of major tech companies on academic research and freedom. It has contributed to debates about how individual rights and freedoms are not just subject to the powers of the state but increasingly to Big Tech companies as well.