Dr. Joan Donovan, Shorenstein Center expert, comments on El Paso, 8chan, and what’s next

Dr. Joan Donovan, Research Director, responds to El Paso shooting, use of manifestos as a tactic, and explains how extremists manipulate the media to control public conversation

Cambridge, MA – Dr. Joan Donovan is Director of the Technology and Social Change (TaSC) Research Project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School. Dr. Donovan leads the field in examining internet and technology studies, online extremism, media manipulation, and disinformation campaigns. In light of recent events, Dr. Donovan explains how journalists should cover violent events in an era of rapid technological change, where extremists can directly reach new audiences. 

The shooting in an El Paso, Texas Walmart this weekend is another tragedy in a string of extremist violence happening across not only the United States, but around the world. Over the past year, we have seen a startling commonality between the perpetrators of several major mass shootings, El Paso included – the creation and distribution of extremist manifestos. These manifestos are published online before the beginning of the attack, and amplified through social media and mainstream news.

Dr. Donovan advocates that the media practice “strategic silence” when reporting on the manifestos. Wide distribution of extremist ideas is one goal of these violent attacks, so republishing the attacker’s manifesto provides them undue influence over important public debates and can potentially inspire others. Dr. Donovan recommends that journalists humanize those who were targeted with pictures and biographies, highlight civil society organizations that work with targeted populations, and tell compelling stories from the perspective of victims. Dr. Donovan offers critical research on what we need to understand about these manifestos and how they tie to a larger strategic aim of manipulating the media. 

The Technology and Social Change (TaSC) Research Project, led by Dr. Donovan, looks not just at extremist events, but also the broader media manipulation landscape and disinformation ecosystem. The TaSC project aims to understand how media manipulation is a means to control public conversation, derail democracy, and disrupt society. The TaSC project conducts research, develops tools, and facilitates workshops for journalists, policy makers, technologists, and civil society organizations on how to detect, document, and debunk media manipulation campaigns. The TaSC project is creating a research platform called the Global Media Manipulation Case Book (GMMCB), which will include 100 case studies to advance our knowledge of how misinformation travels across the web and platforms. The TaSC project is also advising congressional offices on content moderation policies and nation-wide civil society organizations on how to address media manipulation campaigns. 

The Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy has a long-standing dedication to strengthening democracy through research into emerging questions of technology, journalism, and public policy. By bringing Dr. Joan Donovan and the Technology and Social Change Research Project to Harvard Kennedy School, the Shorenstein Center is reinforcing and renewing this mission for the challenges we face today.

Nancy Gibbs, Director: “The Shorenstein Center’s mission is to strengthen the ecosystem of information that advances  a free society. We pursue this mission through research and activities that focus on the intersection of media, politics, and public policy. As we are seeing the dramatic impact of digital platforms on nearly every facet of our lives, one of the core questions that the Shorenstein Center is working to answer is the one that drives Dr. Joan Donovan’s work: “how do we create the web we want?” Through the Technology and Social Change Research Project, Joan and her team are doing vital work to  diagnose what has gone wrong, and propose concrete solutions to build a better internet, and the promise of a better world. The Shorenstein Center at Harvard Kennedy School is proud to be the home for this project.”

Setti Warren, Executive Director: “From my time as a public policy maker I know how valuable reliable, research-based and evidence-based policy advice is at all levels of government. What Joan and her team are working on here at the Shorenstein Center will make a significant impact on our government’s ability to appropriately deal with the problems we face around online hate speech and extremism, and the violence they foster. As opposed to relying on talking points that just sound good, but have no substance to back them up, TaSC is providing the people who are crafting these policies with real evidence-based and research-based policy solutions. The Kennedy School’s motto is “ask what you can do,” and Joan and her team are at the forefront of doing the research and deep thinking that needs to be done right now.”

Photo: Dr. Joan Donovan, Director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School

For more interviews with Dr. Joan Donovan on the El Paso shooting, other incidents involving white supremacists, strategic silence, and the role of digital platforms in amplifying hate, see:

Media contact:
Liz Schwartz
Communications Director

Research project contact:
Vanessa Rhinesmith
Associate Research Director
Technology and Social Change Research Project