A Harvard professor predicted disinformation about COVID online. Here’s what might be next
She was one of the first researchers to predict that medical disinformation would turn the fight against COVID on its head. She also saw pandemic-related xenophobia on an alt-right YouTube show weeks before former President Trump labeled it the “China virus.” And at 8:30 am on January 6th, the day pro-Trump rioters stormed the US Capitol, she warned on Twitter that “today we are going to see the MAGA movement completely rupture from representative politics.”
Now she has a broader warning: If Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other social media companies don’t change their algorithms, loads of new lies spread online could prevail over the next few months, threatening national discourse about the pandemic Recovery, Climate Change and Racial Inequality.
“Tech companies have built a system in which people spread misinformation so much further, so much faster, and at such high speed that the battle against it is like bringing a garden hose to a 30-story building that is on fire.” said Donovan in an interview. “We need updated regulations that guarantee protection in the public interest.”
One summer day, Donovan was recently sitting in her home office in the suburbs of Boston and opening her YouTube playlist. There have been videos questioning the existence of the coronavirus, clips of people challenging critical racial theory – which argues that racism is embedded in laws and policies – in town halls and footage of racist violence at street protests.
Donovan circled a clip by controversial comedian Russell Brand dealing with “The Great Reset,” a term far right groups use to claim that billionaires and other leaders are taking advantage of the pandemic, climate change and private philanthropy Realign the world to benefit the rich.
The term, which originated in 2020 at a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, appeared on their playlist. Clips of brand buying into the concept far surpassed its other videos. A cross-reference of the term on 4chan, an anonymous messaging site known in part for conspiracy theories, indicated that it was used there as well.
“It always goes back to those very old anti-Semitic tropes that Jews control the world, or what they might call the ‘Deep State’ or the ‘New World Order’,” Donovan said. “And so ‘The Great Reset’ really clicked.”
These tropes surfaced in recent protests in California, she said, where people gathered to protest mask mandates and mistakenly compared them to Nazis forcing Jews to wear yellow stars.
In Donovan’s laboratory at the Shorenstein Center of the Harvard Kennedy School, a team of over 20 researchers is analyzing the most important disinformation campaigns and identifying trends. Much of the work is manual, with the team brooding over tons of content on YouTube, online forums, and social media.
When Trump said hydroxychloroquine could kill COVID-19, they attributed the false claim to an obscure Google document that exposed the power of “science in disguise” and referred to disinformation using scientific jargon.
Now Donovan and her team are watching the surge in “Burn the Mask” protests, where the false belief that masks cause bacterial pneumonia is leading people to set them on fire and post videos online.
“The most damaging forms of disinformation usually have a downstream effect when people change their behavior,” she said, “and some campaigns can lead to violence.”
To slow the spread, Donovan suggested a few solutions. Social media companies should hire librarians to curate content on news feeds, she said, instead of simply hiring people to moderate it. “Moderation is a plan to remove the harmful,” she wrote in Wired. “The curation actively finds out what is helpful, contextual and, above all, what is truthful.”
Pat Greenhouse / Globe Staff
Donovan’s immersion in this world has taken a personal toll. She is a frequent target of death threats, online abuse, and harassment. To ensure their safety, Harvard installed a panic button in their office on campus. “It burdens you,” she said. “If my wife asked me to stop, I would stop.”
In some ways, Donovan’s rise to academic prominence is no surprise.
Her interest in studying extremist groups began in the early 1990s when she was caught up in the Massachusetts punk rock scene as a teenager. The subculture is full of neo-Nazis, racists and skinheads, she said. To stay safe, she had to master how people communicated, to distinguish who was extremist and who wasn’t. (For example, skinheads who wore white laces in their Doc Martens shoes were racist, she said, while those who wore red shoelaces were not.)
“You had to know about the subculture to figure out what was going on,” she said. “I can see that as something that shaped my own biography.”
But her path to science has not been linear. Donovan – who loves Dodge Chargers and Stephen King novels, and who helped invent the beaver emoji – took nine years to graduate from college. She started at Northeastern University in 1997 and graduated from Concordia University with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2006, with a punk rock band in between. She has her Ph.D. 2015 with a focus on the Occupy movement. Her early research focused on the worldview of white racists.
At Harvard, Donovan teaches a small number of classes and runs their research laboratory, funded by over $ 10 million from philanthropic foundations and donors. Her work on the “detection, documentation and debunking” of misinformation on the Internet has taken her to the congress halls and boardrooms of social media giants. (Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist, recently donated $ 5 million to Harvard Kennedy School to support the work of their laboratory.)
Donovan has been spending more time with lawmakers lately advising them on how to stop disinformation. In January 2020, she testified before the House of Representatives Energy and Trade Committee calling on politicians to curb the spread of “deep fake” videos, fake propaganda campaigns and other forms of online fraud.
Shortly after the 2020 election, she went before the House Intelligence Committee to say that companies like Facebook and Twitter need to do more on their algorithms and practices to promote more timely, local, and accurate journalism.
In December 2020, five members of Congress wrote to President-elect Biden asking him to appoint Donovan to the COVID task force. We “urge you to add a member to the task force who has a deep understanding of misinformation, including its causes, aggravating factors and ways to combat it,” they said. (He didn’t name her.)
There are some researchers who believe Donovan’s work does not address the real problem. Yochai Benkler, a professor at Harvard Law School, published a study on the 2020 election with his colleagues, which said mass media such as Fox News were more responsible for spreading disinformation than social media. (In response to the criticism, Donovan said, “Large-scale misinformation is a problem in all forms of media and it is not possible to separate social media from other channels.”)
Ultimately, Donovan shows that the pandemic shows the urgent need for social media companies, journalists, citizens and governments to change the way they interact on the internet.
Businesses should focus less on debunking every medical myth and instead creating logs to decide which disinformation campaigns “hit a tipping point” and should be addressed, she said. Local journalists should be vigilant in analyzing misinformation and should not mistakenly report it as news. Politicians should demand that social media platforms are more strictly regulated, such as TV and radio stations.
“We should have an internet that supports democracy,” she said.
Pranshu Verma can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @pranshuverma_.