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New York — October 16, 2020

The Markup, a nonprofit newsroom that investigates how the world’s most powerful institutions use technology to reshape society, today announced the development of The Citizen Browser Project—an initiative designed to measure how disinformation travels across social media platforms over time.

At the center of The Citizen Browser Project is a custom web browser designed by The Markup to audit the algorithms that social media platforms use to determine what information they serve their users, what news and narratives are amplified or suppressed, and which online communities those users are encouraged to join. Initially, the browser will be implemented to glean data from Facebook and YouTube.

A nationally representative panel of 1,200 people will be paid to install the custom web browser on their desktops, which allows them to share real-time data directly from their Facebook and YouTube accounts with The Markup. Data collected from this panel will form statistically valid samples of the American population across age, race, gender, geography, and political affiliation, which will lead to important insights about how Facebook’s and YouTube’s algorithms operate. To protect the panel’s privacy, The Markup will remove personally identifiable information collected by the panel and discard it, only using the remaining redacted data in its analyses.

“Social media platforms are the broadcasting networks of the 21st century,” said The Markup’s editor-in-chief, Julia Angwin. “They dictate what news the public consumes with black box algorithms designed to maximize profits at the expense of truth and transparency. The Citizen Browser Project is a powerful accountability check on that system that can puncture the filter bubble and point the public toward a more free and democratic discourse.”

The Citizen Browser Project is a unique way to collect data about social media companies that allows a simple question that cannot otherwise be answered to be asked: “What content are the platforms choosing to amplify—and to whom are they amplifying it?” In service of finding answers to that question, The Markup has teamed up with The New York Times to analyze the data and report on the project’s findings together.

“The public has a clear interest in understanding exactly how powerful institutions are using technology to reshape our society,” said Nabiha Syed, president of The Markup. “And whether those institutions are public or private government actors or companies, we think the public deserves to know exactly how they wield power over our world. Citizen Browser helps us do that.”

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About The Markup

The Markup is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates how powerful institutions are using technology to change our society. We are a new kind of media organization, staffed with an unparalleled roster of quantitative journalists who pursue meaningful, data-driven investigations. Whenever possible, we will publish the underlying datasets and code that we use in our investigations, as well as a detailed methodology describing the data, its provenance and the statistical techniques used in our analysis. We invite academics, journalists, policymakers, consumer activists, and community organizers to engage with our findings.