Joan Donovan To Talk About Media Manipulation and Online Extremism


After the Christchurch mosque shootings in March 2019, many news agencies reported on the shooter’s philosophies, rather than the victims’ stories. The attacks were streamed live on Facebook, and social media platforms were roundly criticized for not reacting fast enough to stop the spread of that material.

For Joan Donovan, whose work focuses on online extremism, media manipulation, and disinformation campaigns, the platforms’ responses meant that “we need to rethink what it means to talk about these issues,” as she told Global News. “We need to shift the conversation to understanding exactly how much Islamophobia is on all of these major broadcast platforms, and we need to listen to the stories of people who are getting harassed and silenced because they’re talking about their religion or sexuality online.”

Donovan is the research director of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School, and leads The Technology and Social Change Project. At 10:45 a.m. EDT Thursday, July 9, she will present her lecture, “On Media Manipulation and Online Extremism,” on CHQ Assembly. This will be the fourth presentation in Week Two’s theme for the Chautauqua Lecture Series: “Forces Unseen: What Shapes Our Daily Lives.” After the lecture, Shannon Rozner, chief of staff and vice president of strategic initiatives for Chautauqua, will serve as moderator for a live Q-and-A. 

Donovan and the TaSC team also produce the “Meme War Weekly” newsletter and the “BIG, If True” webinar series. The prior discusses “political messaging that comes from the wilds of the internet,” such as how the alt-right uses the internet to spread their manifestos. The latter brings in experts in communication, cybersecurity and other fields to delve into how misinformation is spread across different platforms.

“At a time in which disinformation regarding COVID-19 is prevalent,” said Matt Ewalt, vice president and Emily and Richard Smucker Chair for Education, “and at the same time we see the impact of rumor and speculation that Black Lives Matter demonstrations are being orchestrated by ‘antifa,’ Dr. Donovan’s voice is even more critical for our understanding what forces are at work and how we as individuals navigate this landscape.”

Donovan recently spoke with the Associated Press about the shift that many “ReOpen” Facebook groups have undergone in recent weeks; previously a breeding ground for COVID-19 disinformation and conspiracy theories, those groups are now attacking protesters in the Black Lives Matter movement. 

“Unless Facebook is actively looking for disinformation in those spaces, they will go unnoticed for a long time, and they will grow,” she told the AP. “Over time, people will drag other people into them, and they will continue to organize.”

This program is made possible by The Robert Jacobs Memorial Lectureship Fund.

Tags : Joan DonovanMeme War WeeklyThe Technology and Social Change Project

The author Nick Danlag

Nick Danlag is starting his first season as a reporter for The Chautauquan Daily. He is a creative writing major at Eckerd College, as well as the editor-in-chief of the college’s student newspaper, The Current, and the non-fiction editor of the student literary magazine, The Eckerd Review. For this season of The Chautauquan Daily, he is excited to be recapping the Chautauqua Lecture Series and getting to work from his bedroom in Las Vegas.

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