For those of us watching from Silicon Valley, it was a surreal sight: 33-year-old Mark Zuckerberg testifying before Congress, following revelations the service he started in his dorm room might have been used to undermine democratic elections around the world.
For technologists, the news headlines have been even more surreal. On reporting about the fact that Cambridge Analytica used Facebook’s API to mine the personal details of tens of millions of Americans alone, many called it a “breach.” This incorrectly implies it was a hack or security error when, in fact, the data was accessed in a way that was in line with Facebook’s API design at the time — and it’s highly likely there have been many events of this kind we haven’t heard about yet.
A number of publications have followed up with stories about how Silicon Valley culturally went astray and key executives now want to make amends. This is laudable on the surface, but it’s worth examining some of their underlying motivations.
The PR machine is very much in full swing. And while some of the people interviewed for these pieces were experts who had genuinely been on the frontlines of the most influential companies on the Web, others were not — and the result has been uneven at best and misinformed at worst.
It is undeniable these are real problems that cut to the core of the political process at the heart of every democracy. The tech beat has jumped from largely being a concern of the business pages to something every newsroom needs to be working on. Facebook’s News Feed algorithm is now topically inseparable from both foreign policy and domestic news, and its early push for growth at all costs has had a profound impact on how society is run.
Journalists must become experts on the social Web and venture capital funding to truly understand this story, let alone convey it to a largely non-technical audience. Without the funds to establish a dedicated Silicon Valley desk, some newsrooms are left scrabbling to do the best they can.
Who, really, is able to talk to the specifics of API design, beyond API designers? But when an API can be used to scrape the personal details of tens of millions of people to potentially swing an election, those details are crucial.
Perhaps ironically, Silicon Valley has long had a solution for resource-strapped operations: collaboration. Multiple companies — as well as private individuals — will often work on open-source projects as a way to conserve resources and focus innovation. For example, core software libraries that could be useful for multiple companies are often developed in the open. This same principle will also work in journalism.
There are thought leaders in the space, notably Heather Bryant, whose Project Facet (a software platform to facilitate collaboration between newsrooms) is itself being developed as an open-source project. Kulectiv is a community for individual journalists to work together on stories.
If cash-strapped newsrooms — or independent journalists — work together on difficult stories, some of the background legwork can be shared, and the required fact-checking can receive the benefit of more editorial eyes across organisations. The result is better stories, without negatively affecting any participating publication’s differentiation or bottom line.
The current mess in Silicon Valley is just one example of a story requiring specific expertise to properly convey the nuance (and, therefore, the truth). There are many others. Collaboration is a route to more accurate reporting, at a fraction of the cost.