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Updated Feb 2, 2023, 2:26pm EST
mediaNorth America

Harvard is shutting down a disinformation research hub

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The Scoop

Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government is shutting down one of the hubs of the American debate over truth and falsehood on the internet.

Nancy Gibbs, the director of the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy, said in an internal email obtained by Semafor Thursday that the Technology and Social Change Project was being shut down for bureaucratic reasons.

“The Kennedy School’s standing policy is that all research projects must be led by a full faculty member. While there can be limited exceptions, those can’t continue indefinitely without a faculty member as the principal project leader and academic head,” she wrote.

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The project’s high-profile leader, Dr. Joan Donovan, the Research Director of the Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center, is not a full faculty member. “The decision to wind the TaSC project down is solely driven by that policy,” Gibbs wrote.

Donovan declined to comment.

The email appeared to be aimed at rebutting a Harvard Crimson report on tensions between Donovan and the Kennedy School’s dean, Douglas Elmendorf.

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The email said that two of Donovan’s highest profile projects, the Misinformation Review and an archive of the internal Facebook documents leaked by Francis Haugen, would remain at Harvard.

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Ben’s view

Donovan’s departure from Harvard will mark the end of an era. She was the among the most visible of a group of academics and journalists who argued that false claims spread on social platforms by the populist right posed a central danger to American society. Her message was embraced by Democrats, and she testified before the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

But the notion that non-partisan researchers can separate “misinformation” from political argument has itself become bitterly contested, and Donovan sometimes drew criticism (including from me, in the New York Times) for what some saw as overreach.

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Donovan was also a successful academic fundraiser, and her profile and the scale of her work often overshadowed other projects at the Kennedy School.

“Joan’s work is really important to protect our country from people who want to hurt us. It’s important for her to continue her work, and I’ll be helping,” one of her projects’ supporters, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, told me Thursday.

Donovan’s admirers sharply criticized Harvard’s decision.

“This is absolutely horrible news, this team was doing essential work demystifying the way bad actors manipulate the internet,” tweeted the Washington Post’s Taylor Lorenz.

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Notable

Donovan testified before the House to call for a ”public interest internet.” “The cost of doing nothing is democracy’s end,” she said.

A large-scale study by Donovan’s Center concluded that most January 6 rioters were motivated by loyalty to Donald Trump.

Joseph Bernstein criticized the rise of “Big Disinfo” in Harpers, and suggested it was simply a replacement for old ideas of objectivity. “However well-intentioned these professionals are, they don’t have special access to the fabric of reality.”

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