A peek inside the world of Joan Donovan: from punk rock to rooting out disinformation

Joan Donovan on the set of BUTV as she’s getting interviewed by student journalists. Graphic Courtesy of BUTV.

By Danny Gibbons and James Buckser

Boston University News Service

Dr. Joan Donovan, one of the country’s leading experts in disinformation, is wondering what kind of trouble she can get into as an assistant professor of journalism and emerging media studies at Boston University. 

“In a good way,” she clarified. “Not in a malicious way.”

Donovan joined the BU faculty last fall after parting ways with Harvard University. In her first video interview since coming to BU, she recently sat down with journalists James Buckser and Brian Foisy to discuss disinformation, her transition from Harvard to BU, and the current and future state of the internet. 

Disinformation is, in Donovan’s words, “telling lies on purpose – usually to serve a political end.”

“The reason why [disinformation] flourishes online is because we don’t have the same gatekeepers, the same kind of fact checking for journalism, the same kind of editorial that would go into shaping and telling a true story,” she said. 

In the 1960s and 1970s, the word “disinformation” was generally used in reference to Russia “meddling in U.S. news and media systems,” Donovan said. In the 2010s, other kinds of disinformation began to spread online, amplified by social media platforms. 

“You have a right to the truth,” she said. “It’s important that we start to hold these platforms to account for how and what kind of information they serve.”

Donovan said disinformation today is often related to breaking news, such as the events in Ukraine or Gaza, and may come in the form of AI generated photos. She highlighted a “particularly strange” example of AI photos of “children in Gaza in the rubble holding on to cats.” Donovan said the pictures are “kind of sentimental,” showing the innocence of the children and the animals.

“There’s no blood, there’s no gore,” she said. “It just strikes me as something that’s much more propagandistic and is meant to make you feel a certain way about the information that you’re taking in.”

The anonymity of the internet, she said, allows anyone “from state actors to teenagers to political operatives to angry uncles” to spread disinformation. 

“One of the things that we have yet to reckon with as a society is just what happens when you give high-definition broadcasts in the form of a telephone to every single person that can afford it,” Donovan said.  

If Donovan could remake the internet, she said she would make public health information openly available through “.health” or “.med” websites. 

“There are a lot of things that we could advance about the internet that we haven’t even thought about because we don’t think about it like a public works project,” she said. 

Donovan’s research often leads her to dark corners of the internet. 

“There are times where you get shocked,” she said. “You see something and you’re like – ‘oh my God, I don’t have eyewash.’ ” 

During her time as Research Director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, Donovan obtained raw documents revealing, in her words, “that Meta was very aware that their products were harming people, and they didn’t do anything about it.”

Donovan said she did not think she could have lived with herself if she knew “the harm this company was causing” and was “sitting on evidence of that.”

“I just felt like, ‘You’re an academic. Your job is to work with the truth,’ ” she said.

In August 2023, Donovan left her position at Harvard after the university terminated her research. She said she believes Harvard’s relationship with Meta influenced the university’s decision.

“There’s very little you can do at Harvard to get pushed out in the way that I did,” she said. “But one of the things is to take aim at how they make their money.”

Donovan is now considering pursuing legal action.  

“It’s no small feat to bring a corporation like Harvard to a lawsuit,” she said. “I’m really trying to work as much as we can to get some kind of remediation.”

For Donovan, the fight is about regaining ownership of her intellectual property and reclaiming the funding she raised. She estimated that she left about $3 million behind at Harvard.   

Donovan does not appear to be concerned about history repeating itself in her new job. She noted that BU’s institutional setup is different from that of Harvard. 

“There’s not the same vein of money and alumni groups that are coursing through the veins at Harvard,” she said. “BU seems to have, to my mind, a setup in which faculty and power is distributed a little bit more flatly.”

Donovan reflected on the experiences and decisions that led her to become one of the foremost experts on disinformation. 

“You have a choice in life about how you’re going to live it,” she said. “My experience has been to listen to advice, but follow your heart.”

Donovan worked hard and surrounded herself with like-minded people, doing, in her own words, “the thing that brings [her] the most joy.” 

“And now I’m at BU,” she said. “How do we use the institution so that it benefits not just the people who pay to go here, but the broader community? How do we get some of the other truth-telling institutions like libraries and journalism back into a public service mindset so that this generation that I’m part of leaves a legacy better than what we found?”

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