How ProPublica Became Big Tech’s Scariest Watchdog
Facebook is a political battleground where Russian operatives work to influence elections, fake news runs rampant, and political hopefuls use ad targeting to reach swing voters. We have no idea what goes on inside Facebook’s insidious black box algorithm, which controls the all-powerful News Feed. Are politicians playing by the rules? Can we trust Facebook to police them? Do we really have any choice?
One emerging way to hold tech companies like Facebook accountable is to use similar technology to figuratively poke at that black box, gathering data and testing hypotheses about what might be going on inside, almost like early astronomers studying the solar system.
It’s a tactic being pioneered at the nonprofit news organization ProPublica by a team of reporters, programmers, and researchers led by Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Julia Angwin. Angwin’s team specializes in investigating algorithms that impact people’s lives, from the Facebook News Feed to Amazon’s pricing models to the software determining people’s car insurance payments and even who goes to prison and for how long. To investigate these algorithms, they’ve had to develop a new approach to investigative reporting that uses technology like machine learning and chatbots.
The team’s current project is a global investigation into how political ads function on Facebook. But instead of buying ads, this time they built a browser extension called the Political Ad Collector that scrapes the ads from your Facebook feed and uses a machine learning algorithm to determine which are political and which are not.
|How ProPublica Became Big Tech’s Scariest Watchdog