Data journalists learn from photojournalists

In the fall of 2022, Twitter, our digital public square, was taken over by the world’s richest man on a whim. Almost immediately we started seeing the impact the change in ownership was having on the platform. We saw reports on the rise in the use of hate speech, a shift in the platform’s audience, and the restoration of previously banned accounts.

Given the haphazard nature of recent policy decisions, journalists and researchers are reckoning with their reliance on the platform to provide access to data they need for reporting. In the case of Twitter, this means the Twitter API and the slew of products built on top of it — but Twitter is not the only place where this is an issue. Facebook recently crippled CrowdTangle, a vital tool for reporting on what’s trending on the platform.

These days, being in the dark about what is happening on social media has increasingly come to mean being in the dark about how important parts of society function — whether that’s how public health misinformation spreads, elections are conducted, or countries at war reach their citizens.

To meaningfully report on society, we need to be able to observe what’s taking place on these platforms without relying on their permission. Data journalists need to go inside these black box social networks to document the experience of those living there — like photojournalists documenting what’s happening on the streets of Algorithm City.

We need to collect data in an independent manner to tell stories that are in the public interest, not the ones the companies want reported. Doing so requires deeply collaborative working environments where journalists, engineers, designers, and researchers can combine their skills to study the world we live in and report on it with precision. It also requires investment in building the methods and best practices to keep the data secure and to respect the privacy of the people who are sharing it, along with the communities they are a part of.

We need to invest in developing investigative engineering techniques independent of these companies to bear witness to what they would prefer remains hidden.

Surya Mattu is a data journalist and engineer who leads The Digital Witness Lab at Princeton’s Center For Information Technology Policy.

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