Algorithms in Practice: Comparing Web Journalism and Criminal Justice

Special Event | February 26 | 4:10-5:30 p.m. |  470 Stephens Hall

 Angèle Christin

 Information, School of

Big Data evangelists often argue that algorithms make decision-making more informed and objective â a promise hotly contested by critics of these technologies. Yet, to date, most of the debate has focused on the instruments themselves, rather than on how they are used. This project addresses this lack by examining the actual practices surrounding algorithmic technologies. Specifically, drawing on multi-sited ethnographic data, I compare how algorithms are used and interpreted in two institutional contexts with markedly different characteristics: web journalism and criminal justice. I find that there are surprising similarities in how web journalists and legal professionals use algorithms in their work. In both cases, I document a gap between the intended and actual effects of algorithms â a process I analyze as âdecoupling.â Second, I identify a gamut of buffering strategies used by both web journalists and legal professionals to minimize the impact of algorithms in their daily work. Those include foot-dragging, gaming, and open critique. Of course, these similarities do not exhaust the differences between the two cases, which are explored in the discussion section. I conclude with a call for further ethnographic work on algorithms in practice as an important empirical check against the dominant rhetoric of algorithmic power.