Algorithms in practice: Comparing web journalism and criminal justice

22 Mar 2021

Algorithms in practice: Comparing web journalism and criminal justice by Angèle Christin.

Abstract: Big Data evangelists often argue that algorithms make decision-making more informed and objective—a promise hotlycontested 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 article addresses this lack by examining the actualpracticessurrounding algo-rithmic technologies. Specifically, drawing on multi-sited ethnographic data, I compare how algorithms are used andinterpreted 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. Inboth cases, I document a gap between the intended and actual effects of algorithms—a process I analyze as ‘‘decoupling.’’Second, I identify a gamut of buffering strategies used by both web journalists and legal professionals to minimize theimpact of algorithms in their daily work. Those include foot-dragging, gaming, and open critique. Of course, thesesimilarities 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 againstthe dominant rhetoric of algorithmic power

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