Technology

Boston University hires disinformation expert Joan Donovan after Harvard dismissal


SAN FRANCISCO — Boston University has hired prominent disinformation expert Joan Donovan to a tenure-track position in its College of Communication after her dismissal as a Harvard University research director stoked fears about attacks on academic freedom.

The private Boston university said Donovan would start as an assistant professor on Sept. 1, a day after Harvard’s formal termination of her role at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy. She will teach in the journalism department and the division of emerging media studies, which offers the only doctorates in the college.

Donovan, a critic of big social media companies who has kept a low profile since Harvard said it would end her contract, told The Washington Post she planned to return to the public stage.

“I’m very excited to be working on producing events, colloquia and series that are about informing the public about technology being used to harm society,” Donovan said. “Our goal is to be helpful within and beyond the university.”

Harvard is shutting down project that studied social media misinformation

Donovan had been director since 2019 of Shorenstein’s Technology and Social Change Research Project, where she had raised more than $5 million for a team of faculty, staff and students studying disinformation and media manipulation.

Donovan has studied how false medical information spread, including that which led to excess coronavirus deaths; the use of automated social media accounts in influence campaigns; the role of social media in the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol riot; and the evolution of the QAnon web of conspiracy theories.

She has consistently made her evidence and conclusions public to a broad audience through workshops and television interviews, making her more recognizable than many tenured Harvard faculty members and bringing outsize attention to her work. She has also given congressional testimony about deceptive media campaigns.

“Joan is a courageous researcher who has steadfastly remained independent of tech companies, while also producing innovative research about media manipulation, and disinformation about public health and elections,” said Maria Ressa, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate who exposed Philippine government propaganda on social media as chief executive of Rappler.

U.S. officials, researchers and private experts cite disinformation as one of the biggest threats to the country’s political system and to democracies elsewhere. Many scholars were stunned in February when Harvard said it would end Donovan’s work and distribute some of it, including an archive of Facebook documents leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen, to others on campus.

The university cited a rule that research projects needed to be led by full faculty members. But the decision came amid mounting political pressure on work like Donovan’s.

Two state attorneys general have won early rounds of lawsuits accusing academics such as Stanford University’s Alex Stamos of participating in a wide-ranging conspiracy with government officials to censor conservative or anti-vaccine content on social media.

Disinfo researchers are under pressure from the right. They’re starting to push back.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who leads a House subcommittee on “weaponization of the federal government” that was formed after the midterm elections, has demanded documents and testimony from other researchers accused of bias. Such Donovan peers as Kate Starbird at the University of Washington have cut back on interviews amid that pressure and waves of online threats and harassment.

Donovan noted that Boston University has gotten used to coming under fire. One lightning rod for the foes of racism studies is Ibram Kendi, author of “How to Be an Antiracist,” who runs BU’s Center for Antiracist Research.

“BU is a great place to do this kind of work,” Donovan said. “BU is not as tied up with tech company money as other university systems.”

Donovan said she was looking forward to working with new colleagues such as Chris Wells, who has been researching misinformation since the early 2000s. In more recent years, Wells wrote a paper finding that mainstream media often quoted social media accounts in the run-up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election that were later found to have been operated by paid Russian propagandists. His article summarizing that paper was cited in the report on election interference by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Wells, a tenured associate professor who once edited a paper of Donovan’s, said that she was especially well regarded on political disinformation and that she worked empirically but with a critical lens, which he said would complement the more heavily quantitative, measurement-oriented work he and others were doing.

“I’m excited to have her perspective,” Wells said. “We have some strength in the mis- and disinformation area, and she really adds a media system type of view, she [analyzes] the interaction of different parts of the media ecosystem.”