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Harvard dumping misinfo researcher who questioned Hunter Biden laptop

Joan Donovan led Technology and Social Change project, which touts its mission as detecting, documenting and debunking "media manipulation as a means to control public conversation, derail democracy, and disrupt society."

Published: February 23, 2023 9:33pm

Updated: February 25, 2023 11:09pm

Harvard's Kennedy School surprised the disinformation policing community by telling Joan Donovan to wind down her Technology and Social Change project and leave the school by summer 2024, The Harvard Crimson reported.

Donovan has led the project within the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy since its 2019 inception. The project's website touts its mission as detecting, documenting and debunking "media manipulation as a means to control public conversation, derail democracy, and disrupt society."

She was a skeptic of the authenticity of Hunter Biden's laptop, telling an HKS podcast on election day 2020 that "the sourcing of the laptop" to a Delaware repair shop "stinks of tradecraft" and "a drop," Fox News reported.

HKS staff members told the Crimson that Donovan is not allowed to raise new money, hire new staff or spend existing funds as she might like, and they traced her drawn-out exit to conflict with Dean Douglas Elmendorf.

Citing interviews and its review of internal documents, Semafor reported that Donovan was dominating the Shorenstein Center's public attention with her "politically charged work," frequently writing and appearing in mainstream media and testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on misinformation.

Former Facebook policy chief Eliot Schrage, a member of the HKS Dean's Council, challenged her October 2021 presentation to the council on misinformation, participants told Semafor. He argued that journalists and academics often invoke misinformation to discredit politics they dislike. 

Comedian Jon Stewart also questioned "who gets to decide" what's misinformation last year on an episode of his his podcast that featured Donovan, Reclaim the Net noted. The former "Daily Show" host mused that he could have lost his Comedy Central show for challenging reporting by The New York Times used to justify the Iraq War.

Donovan's project works on the Facebook Archive of documents leaked by whistleblower Frances Haugen about the tech platform's knowledge of its harmful effects. Sheryl Sandberg, then Facebook's chief operating officer, gave HKS $5 million in the 2010s.

HKS gave the Crimson a simpler explanation, saying "all long-term research and outreach projects" must be led by a full faculty member, and Donovan is just an adjunct. Shorenstein Center Director Nancy Gibbs said other faculty will take over the misinformation research and Facebook Archive. Donovan has declined to comment on reporting.

The school was less gracious toward Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), a member of its Senior Advisory Committee. A week after the Jan. 6 riot, Elmendorf posted a public letter to the committee saying he had forcibly removed Stefanik for spouting "voter fraud" claims and "incorrect" statements about election-related legal actions.

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