Interview with Joan Donovan

The research director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Centre on Media, Politics and Public Policy talks about growing up in an environment of aggressive scepticism, and then battling an academic culture that can’t handle it

July 20, 2023
Joan Donovan

Joan Donovan is director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy. She is widely recognised as a leading expert on political disinformation, having produced groundbreaking studies of Trump-era attacks on truth that have taught policymakers, health professionals and the public about the rise of extremism through the internet and how it can be countered.

Where were you born and how has this shaped who you are?
I was born on the North Shore of Massachusetts, and have spent most of my life here. I can say that the kind of indignancy that Massachusetts folks tend to exhibit has definitely influenced my career trajectory and my decisions to research the technology industry, which is now one of the most powerful industries, if not the most powerful industry, in the world. It’s subsuming government, journalism, the military, education – all of our most precious truth-telling institutions.

Yes, indignancy, but also some nativism and intolerance around here too?
Growing up queer in Massachusetts, I get quite a bit of that. But I’ve managed along the way to find community in different places and spaces. Even at Harvard, you find your people, obviously. I’ve always, growing up in Massachusetts, been part of different communities of folks that are looking to give back. It took me 10 years to do my undergraduate degree, and I began at Northeastern and then I went to UMass Boston. When I left Massachusetts to go to Concordia University, in Montreal, I was looking for a very similar working-class vibe when it came to colleagues and students. Then when I went off to UC San Diego, I did a lot of volunteering with local community centres.

Why should an average citizen care about your work?
Unfortunately, what we’ve seen over the past few years is the weaponisation of social media platforms by politicians – not just foreign adversaries, but also domestic. And one of the quickest ways to erode democracy is to make it difficult to access timely, accurate, local knowledge. I did some early work on white supremacists, their rise and their organising, that helped drive new rules at social media companies around removing certain content or banning certain actors. In the book Meme Wars, we wanted to show people exactly how low culture – or memes – in the everyday use of the internet is something that is changing our politics and changing our political institutions. Our work on medical misinformation has been widely read by government officials, physicians and other public health professionals, and has been really consequential for the way in which we conceptualise information flows during moments of crisis.

Have you had a ‘eureka’ moment?
Yes, years ago, when I was studying white supremacists, I was reading their message boards the day that Donald Trump announced his candidacy in 2015. And when Trump claimed that Mexico was “not sending their best”, the white supremacists began saying, “He’s too extreme, he blew it, he’s going to have to apologise.” And then in the coming weeks, when he didn’t apologise, and he doubled down, they started to get excited about his presidency. And I thought to myself, it’s really important to pay attention to the fringes if we’re going to look at the effect of this communication infrastructure on more traditional political campaigning. That’s when I really switched over from studying just white supremacists and into studying more right-wing politics.

Do you have advice for your younger self?
Fight back.

For instance?
Me and my team are being let go by Harvard, which has claimed that it owns all of the IP on all of the research that my team and I have done. I think that that’s expressly to intimidate me, and less about Harvard really wanting to own my own ideas. It’s about wanting to silence me.

Why would Harvard want to silence the kinds of things that you're working on?
If you look across the field, and look at these platform companies, there’s this broad divestment from research about media manipulation and disinformation. These topics have a right-wing Republican agenda, best expressed through Fox News. You have people like Matt Taibbi pushing the Twitter Files, claiming that academia and the government are working together with tech companies to suppress right-wing voices.

And Harvard doesn’t accept that?
Harvard says I'm losing my job because of a faculty by-law that says only faculty members can run projects at the Kennedy School. And I’m not a faculty member, I'm a research director, and that means to them that I have to go. But I’m also probably the only researcher at Harvard that does this kind of tech-critical work who is also independent of tech companies – I don’t take money or data from any of these companies, and there are others at the university that do. And the university got a $500 million (£390 million) donation from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative right when I started having my initial problems.

And what lesson does that offer?
I think what junior scholars and folks can take away from my troubles at Harvard is that institutions tend to work adjacent to one another. And when you have an industry as powerful and as large as tech companies, and you’re doing research about the relationship between how these tech companies favour particular political positions, how these tech companies’ products themselves provide space for the events like 6 January [2021] – and when I say provide space, I mean the actual services and infrastructure and apparatus that allows people to organise violence at the Capitol or violence at Kenosha – then academics have to ask these important questions. Because we are the only people that are in a position to argue, independent from these corporations, and independent from political outcomes, for the truth.

What comes next for you?
I have some ideas. The worst part is my team – I will always have options, and I’m also like a scrooge, I save all my money. I’m not worried about me. But my team, I worry about them, because I have a lot of junior scholars and folks that don’t have the name that I do.


1997-99 liberal arts major, Northeastern University

2001 business major, University of Massachusetts Boston

2004-06 BA sociology, Concordia University

2006-08 MA sociology, Concordia

2008-15 PhD in sociology and science studies, University of California, San Diego

2016-18 research lead for media manipulation and platform accountability at the Data & Society Research Institute

2019-present director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy

2022 Meme Wars: The Untold Story of the Online Battles Upending Democracy in America (with Emily Dreyfuss and Brian Friedberg)


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