Global trust in Big Tech, long plagued by issues of privacy and overreach, hit a record low last year. Yet technology continues to dominate our lives, and the COVID-19 pandemic has only magnified its influence. “As algorithms are making more and more decisions about every single part of our lives, shouldn’t the public have a say?” asks Nabiha Syed, president of the nonprofit tech industry-focused news organization the Markup. It’s a rhetorical question that could well be the organization’s mission statement.
The site traffics in news items and service-oriented sections, but the Markup has largely made a name for itself with in-depth, data-driven investigative pieces that hold Big Tech companies accountable for largely unpoliced transgressions such as racially biased software algorithms and self-serving search results. To build trust, the site created an innovative and high-transparency process—the Markup Method—that details the datasets, methodologies, and statistical techniques used in their stories.
Just two years into existence, the Markup’s fresh take on investigative journalism has made a powerful impact. The platform has been cited more than 10 times in major lawsuits and legislative hearings, as well as in two landmark federal antitrust bills. These ground-breaking efforts have earned the Markup a spot among Fast Company‘s list of the world’s Most Innovative Companies.
ETHICAL DATA COLLECTION
Julia Angwin, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, cofounded the Markup after years of pondering the often misunderstood impact technology has on our lives. The newsroom launched on February 25, 2020, just 10 days before the pandemic shut down the country—and our collective dependence on technology skyrocketed. “[COVID] upped the ante for us,” Syed explains. “We’re using telemedicine to go to the doctor and delivery apps to get our groceries. We’ve got to make sure that this is actually fair for everybody.”
The Markup Method begins with a team developing a hypothesis and building a dataset. After evaluating the data, the team enters the lengthy “Bulletproof Phase,” during which they enlist experts to rigorously challenge their findings. “We’re trying to build trust in our findings. We want to make sure that before something sees the light of day, we’re really interrogating it,” Syed says.
After a thorough internal review process, the team posts the story (and its methodologies), encouraging its readers—including activists, academics, and policy makers—to engage with the finding and even republish their work (under a Creative Commons license).
The Markup also leads by example. Its website bans the use of data tracking that can expose users’ data to third parties. The newsroom amplifies its investigations in other ways, including collaborations with high-profile partners such as Consumer Reports and the Associated Press and first-party surveys that help the organization understand what resonates with audiences.
Syed says the Markup’s quest to hold Big Tech accountable requires a multilayered approach that includes and respects individual agency but also keeps an eye on the role companies and regulators can play in leveling the technology playing field. “We give you the tools to make a difference in your life,” she says. “But our work also puts pressure on the company, so the company stops doing it, and we get legislative change, so then it can happen on a structural level. All of these pieces need to happen.”