Katie Paul did not set out to be a Big Tech watchdog. An archaeologist and anthropologist by training, she moved from dig sites to websites following the Arab Spring, when she realized that social media was enabling criminal traffickers to create a new black market for mosaics and other cultural antiquities. “That’s what led me into tech policy and trying to understand why such nefarious content is allowed online,” says Paul, who in the summer of 2020 joined the Tech Transparency Project, an initiative of the non-partisan not-for-profit Campaign for Accountability. Paul brings the tools of ethnographic research to rooting out white supremacists and domestic extremists on Facebook. She operates exactly as an average user would—with the exception of using a fake account for security purposes—following the path of recommendations that Facebook makes. Once she enters a private community, she’s merely an observer, matching patterns and collecting evidence of what’s really happening in these unmoderated, insulated spaces. Amid the social tumult of the past year, Tech Transparency Project issued five reports between May and October 2020 warning about militia groups organizing on Facebook based on Paul’s work. “At no point had Facebook ever once contacted us to ask for those lists so [that it] could remove the content, or at least examine it,” Paul says, but her work did force Facebook to create a policy for the first time on how to deal with militia groups, and “it did force them to use their AI to start avoiding things like the words ‘Boogaloo,” one of the more radical groups organizing on Facebook.
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