Journalists Unveil The Markup to Investigate Tech Algorithms

ProPublica journalist Julia Angwin has worked with programmers and data scientists to uncover the algorithms used by big tech companies such as Facebook and how these tools can be used to promote scams, racial bias and extremist content. Now, with a $20 million gift from Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, Angwin and data journalist Jeff Larson are starting The Markup, a new site focused on investigating technology and its impact on society. Wikimedia Foundation former head Sue Gardner will be executive director.

The New York Times reports that Angwin and Larson “also raised $2 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, and $1 million collectively from the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, and the Ethics and Governance of Artificial Intelligence Initiative.”

Their plan is to hire two-dozen journalists for its New York office; their stories will begin appearing on the website in early 2019. Angwin, who will be editor-in-chief, “compares tech to canned food … [as] an innovation that took some time to be seen with more scrutiny.”

Angwin, who was part of a Wall Street Journal team that won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of corporate corruption, identifies the 2016 presidential election as a tipping point. She said that, “the newsroom would be guided by the scientific method and each story would begin with a hypothesis.”

At ProPublica, for example, she and a team examined the hypothesis that Facebook allows racist housing ads. The team bought ads on the site and “proved the hypothesis.” Larson and Angwin have investigated “how big tech companies were helping extremist sites make money, how African-Americans were overcharged for car insurance, and how Facebook allowed political ads that were actually scams and malware.”

“There are unintended consequences,” said Larson. “In all three of those cases, it was a complete surprise to the people who made those algorithms as well.”

The Markup will investigate three broad topics: “how profiling software discriminates against the poor and other vulnerable groups; Internet health and infections like bots, scams and misinformation; and the awesome power of the tech companies.” Its stories will be released “under a creative commons license so other organizations can republish them, as ProPublica does.”

At the new venture, “journalists will be partnered with a programmer from a story’s inception until its completion.” “To investigate technology, you need to understand technology,” said Angwin. “I believe that technologists need to be involved from the very beginning of tech investigations.”

Angwin met Newmark when she wrote about him at The San Francisco Chronicle in 1997, and she calls him an ideal investor “because he has no interest or temperament for trying to interfere in coverage.” In the 1990s, Newmark founded Craigslist, which helped to destroy the main source of revenue for print publications, classified advertising; recently he “has given several substantial donations to journalistic institutions, including $20 million to the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.”

“We’re in an information war now,” he said.