Behind the Scenes Q&As

How ProPublica’s Craig Silverman uncovers Big Tech deceptions

The rise of Big Tech and social media has led to a wildfire spread of misinformation. As fact-checking tools across platforms like X, Facebook and Instagram continue to be misused and ill-prepared, concerns surrounding the power of these platforms linger.

Craig Silverman is a journalist for ProPublica, formerly the media editor of BuzzFeed. He works to uncover disinformation propelled by social media and big tech. Silverman worked for six months on several articles last year about Google’s advertising business; essentially, how Google profits from ads on websites that spread misinformation.

Storybench spoke with Silverman to understand his process and philosophies around covering Big Tech deception.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

How do you find your stories?

Silverman: I find myself looking for what areas might be overlooked and what aspects of disinformation or online manipulation are not getting as much attention. There’s lots of ways of coming across stories and some of it is just very traditional, over time building relationships with knowledgeable people and sources and experts.

That element of tips of people approaching me with information is absolutely a part of it. I think that too often, people who might be reporting in the digital area can overlook the element of human sourcing and of more traditional things like records, requests, documents. As a reporter, I had overlooked that for too long as well and have been trying to really catch up on that much more in recent years.

I do spend time curating feeds in sources so that I’m staying on top of things and giving myself an opportunity to spot a pattern or something that seems incongruous that might actually be worth looking more into — and that could end up being a story.

Headshot of Craig Silverman
Silverman started working for ProPublica in 2021. (Photo courtesy of Craig Silverman.)

How do you go about your process of data gathering?

We approached a lot of places that are gathering data on a regular basis that would be of interest to us to see if they would be interested in sharing with us. There’s a site called well-known.dev, which collects a lot of information about ad systems, and there’s a website called builtwith.com, which also collects information about which ad systems websites are using.

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We started collecting the data and trying to see what pieces were we missing and [what] we wanted more of. Part of that involved Ruth Talbot and another developer named Jeff Kao building some tools. Ruth spent months building a tool, a scraper, that would visit websites, scan a page and give us a readout of whether or not Google ads had appeared and gather some data related to that.

We created this interplay between gathering data from disparate sources and also building tools to create what was essentially a brand new data source that hadn’t existed before about fact-checked articles that Google was serving ads on, and about the extent to which Google is allowing its publisher partners to conceal their information.

What’s it like working with Big Tech companies?

There’s no question that trying to cultivate sources inside these companies is a really, really important piece of reporting on them and their products and their effect on society. Understanding the values of these different Big Tech companies and what the intent incentives are internally and what are the priorities being set by the top executives? What are the politics and interpersonal dynamics between this team and that team within Google?

It’s actually really important to understand what the products look like and how they act and how they behave. So, that element of trying to get people inside to talk to you is really, really important.

As much as I may feel confident in interviews I’ve done and documents I’ve gathered and data and all the other elements that might go into a story, you can’t take it for granted that you haven’t missed something or misinterpreted something or gotten something wrong. And so engaging with the platforms is really, really important.

Digital art from ProPublica
Digital art accompanying Silverman’s ProPublica piece “Google Allowed a Sanctioned Russian Ad Company to Harvest User Data for Months.” Art attributed to Geoffroy de Crécy.

How do you balance covering controversial corporations without burning those bridges as a journalist?

I think it is important to have an open and professional channel with the companies and people and organizations that you cover as much as possible for the sake of accuracy and for the sake of giving them a chance to comment. I also know from having spoken to a lot of employees at these places that you don’t find people who go in there and want to do bad things or hurt people or they want to fall down on the job. They’re dealing with their own internal constraints. And so understanding that human element and understanding how people may feel like they are trying their best or doing the right thing, but then, you know, we’re hamstrung by the way an organization decides to prioritize one thing over another.

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I think appreciating those dynamics is important and also appreciating the challenges of the communications person who is trying to deal with you on the story and their limitations as well. I’ve never felt like there’s a dartboard of me inside at any of these platforms with my face on it.

Do you have any advice for journalists that might want to mimic the work that you do?

Well, I think one of the things that I look back on that was valuable to me was I ended up getting obsessed with things and really spending time monitoring them and looking closely at them and finding ways to produce work consistently about them. And for me, it was like nerding out on media and verification and then it was nerding out on rumors and disinformation and how content flows on social media. I just kept trying to follow it and try new tools and new approaches. And so I really encourage journalists to find healthy obsessions.

I think it’s also really, really important to not get over-emphasized on the data side and ignore the human sourcing and document side and vice versa. It’s really when you can combine the technical stuff, the observational stuff, the sourcing and documents and put those together that you start to find things that other people don’t have.

Sarah Mesdjian
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