Joan Donovan, a prominent figure in the realm of internet misinformation, found herself embroiled in controversy in 2023. She parted ways with her position at Harvard’s Kennedy School and subsequently submitted a whistleblower complaint spanning hundreds of pages.

The crux of her grievance revolves around the assertion that Facebook/Meta’s influence and wealth forced her out following a specific confrontation at a public event in October 2021. Below is Donovan’s account of the incident:

Recently, the Chronicle of Higher Education published an extensive exposé on Donovan titled “The Distortions of Joan Donovan.” This piece scrutinizes some of the specific claims she has made. Author Stephanie Lee’s investigation into the October 2021 confrontation that Donovan attributes to her professional downfall revealed intriguing findings.

According to Donovan’s whistleblower statement, she informed a group called the Dean’s Council that she possessed confidential files – what she deemed as “the most crucial documents in internet history.” She raised concerns about Facebook, now rebranded as Meta, adversely affecting democracy. Elliot Schrage, a Harvard alum and former head of communications and public policy at Facebook, was present. Donovan asserts that their subsequent conversation catalyzed her demise.

Later in the discourse, Schrage allegedly monopolized the discussion, challenging Donovan’s interpretation of the documents and disputing prior discussions about Facebook. Despite Donovan’s attempts to address Schrage’s accusations, he persisted in a hostile manner. The situation escalated to the point where another individual had to intervene to calm Schrage down. The atmosphere was described as tense, awkward, and embarrassing.

However, a video recording contradicts this portrayal. In the footage provided by the Kennedy School, Schrage’s remarks were focused on questioning Donovan’s definition of misinformation and opining on the responsibilities of companies like Facebook. Schrage spoke for three minutes, after which Donovan responded for five-and-a-half minutes mainly addressing his initial queries.

Another council member thanked Donovan for her insights and requested her thoughts on social media’s financial incentives. Subsequent questions were raised and answered by Donovan. Schrage made no additional remarks until the session concluded, as per the recording.

Donovan’s legal representative insinuated that the video material could have been tampered with, yet no concrete evidence supports this claim.

What is confirmed is that ten days post the contentious meeting, Douglas W. Elmendorf, the Kennedy School’s dean, contacted Donovan to discuss her contributions. Despite acknowledging her valuable work, Elmendorf faced limitations due to Donovan’s non-faculty status. Per Harvard’s regulations, only faculty members can supervise research teams, with which Donovan seemed oblivious.

In August 2022, Elmendorf informed Donovan that her project would need to conclude by June 2024, citing faculty-led research stipulations. Donovan held Harvard and Elmendorf responsible for her displacement, hinting at potential sexism and homophobia allegations against the institution. She also accused a Shorenstein Center colleague of instigating turmoil, although discrepancies in her narrative were noted, as depicted in the chronicle.

Tensions within the Shorenstein Center, where Donovan’s team and other media and politics researchers operated, reached a boiling point. Donovan alleges in her declaration that Laura Manley, the center’s executive director, attempted to foster discord in a December 2022 meeting with an unidentified staff member. Donovan, absent from the meeting, claimed that Manley implied Donovan’s self-centered approach and intention to abandon her team. Manley refuted Donovan’s account, asserting that the conversation predominantly focused on the employee’s future plans. She clarified her standard practice of advising all employees to consult HR for any Harvard-affiliation inquiries, irrespective of the circumstances. Donovan mentioned an HR investigation into the incident, citing “unprofessional conduct,” a claim contradicted by a Harvard spokesperson. Manley confirmed she never received notice of such an investigation, as mandated by Harvard policy, denying its occurrence entirely.

Roughly a month after the pivotal October 2021 event flagged by Donovan as the catalyst for her tribulations, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative allocated $500 million to Harvard for an AI research hub.

Contrary to Donovan’s implication, none of the funds were designated for the Kennedy School, with Elmendorf clarifying the insignificance of the gift to Donovan’s situation. He refuted Donovan’s claims of mistreatment and donor interference, deeming them baseless.

Ultimately, Donovan’s tenure at Harvard concluded in August 2023, nearly a year ahead of schedule. She has since transitioned to Boston University.

The narrative culminates with Lee confronting Donovan with inconsistencies within her account. Following a teary, hours-long phone exchange, Lee straightforwardly questioned Donovan about the accusations of propagating misinformation.

Initially silent, Donovan stood by the details in her declaration, asserting integrity in her recollection of events. She dismissed fabricating information, stating it would be easily debunked. Despite highlighting her vulnerability against corporate entities like Harvard and Facebook, she adhered to her truth. She described the abrupt shift from a position of influence to vulnerability, attributing it to her circumstances and adversaries.

Following the call’s conclusion, Donovan bombarded Lee with 88 text messages in the ensuing days, their tone growing increasingly ominous.

Unprompted, Donovan alluded to malevolent influences conspiring against her. Expressing fear for her safety, she contemplated changing her legal identity to avert potential threats to her privacy and security. She conveyed apprehension about physical harm or worse.

During subsequent interactions with Stephanie Lee, Donovan implied that the Chronicle article indicated collusion between Harvard and Meta against her, attributing Lee’s involvement to this alleged conspiracy.

It becomes evident that Donovan’s reliability as a narrator, even concerning her personal ordeal, is questionable. Her proclaimed expertise in misinformation emerges as disconcerting. The full account merits exploration should time allow.