Avi Asher-Schapiro is a journalist who focuses on the intersection of technology and human rights. His investigations have pivoted on exposing abuse of power. He recounts some of his work including his first investigative piece in school. He also talks about what drives him, how he digs up information, the power of story telling and the flawed assumption that everything is on the internet already.
“Their job is to make themselves look really good and your job is to sort of figure out what's true and what's not true, and often you're at odds because the facts don't make them look good. So there you are. And that's the game.”
About the speaker
Avi Asher-Schapiro is a reporter focused on technology at the Thomson Reuters Foundation - he's worked as a staff writer for VICE News, and the International Business Times, as well as a correspondent covering the intersection of technology and press freedom for the Committee to Protect Journalists. His reporting and investigations have been published in outlets like the Atlantic Monthly, the Intercept, Harper's Magazine, and the Nation.
I was one of those kids who was really into detectives. I don’t know if that’s a type, or that’s just me. It might be a type - I hope it’s a type. Big Sherlock Holmes guy, big Encyclopedia Brown guy. I think that the idea, from a very early age I was kind of entranced by the idea of like, figuring something out that someone else couldn't figure out. This sort of... the trick of it. I was also into – this is nerdy but I was also into magic, like, you know, illusion. Like I think it all goes together, right? This kind of interest in how things are concealed and how things are revealed and the sort of drama behind both concealing things and revealing things as a sort of meta thing.
My name is Avi Asher-Schapiro. I'm a reporter for the Thomson Reuters Foundation. I cover the intersection of technology and human rights.
I originally got into journalism in a meandering roundabout way. I wanted to pursue graduate studies in Middle East studies, Arab studies. And I was living in Egypt, working on my Arabic and sort of doing research. It was around the time of the Arab Spring, and I sort of realized I didn't have the attention span for long-term academic work. And I was sort of caught up in all the exciting things that were happening at the time, so I sort of took a bank shot into journalism. When I left the region and returned to the United States, I was sort of looking, casting about, for under-covered stories that I could write about. I'm from Northern California. I grew up outside of Silicon valley and I had always kind of paid attention with one eye open to what was going on there. But when I returned to the US back then, I began to realize that there was a massive open lane in taking a critical look at tech. Basically my first entrée into it was similar to what I had been looking at in Egypt – was this sort of economic question. So I started looking at labour issues around technology, and that took me to Uber, which was sort of the first big thing I wrote about in tech. I mean, now everyone is so critical of the labour records of a lot of these tech companies. I mean, the Amazon workers peeing in bottles is like a meme, right? But you know, if you can cast your mind back to back then, if you read the first couple of New York Times stories about Uber, you'll remember that the discourse was very, very different. I detected a lot of under-covered dynamics, so it kind of launched me into that, first starting to report on Uber, and that led me to basically do a lot of reporting on tech companies. Not just the companies, but that's been a strain or a thread that's woven through the last ten years of my work.
One of the issues with Silicon Valley in journalism is that, at least in the beginning, I think there was a lot of cultural resonance between the type of people who go into journalism and the type of people who go into tech. For me, it was obvious that there is this sort of blind spot there, and that the kinds of people that companies might be doing harm to, they weren't really at the front of the story, right? So the story was always about the user of the tech, right? How cool it was to summon an Uber or how awesome it was to use an iPhone. And then the back of the story was like the driver or the cobalt miner or whatever, right? Like innovation doesn't hurt anyone. It's not like an oil company. It's an internet company. I mean, all these things sound so obvious now, at this moment, because it's like, duh, we've all seen the Amazon peeing in bottles stuff. We've all heard about the Uber drivers living in their car. But I think if you do cast your mind back to that moment of ten or eleven years ago, we've gone through a total sea change in how the mainstream press covers this stuff.
I wrote a piece for the Intercept in like 20—it must've been 2017 – that was about how Uber dealt with women drivers who complained that they'd been sexually assaulted on the job. And the question the story was trying to ask was like, you know ... So a lot of the stories before that had been about like, what about the passengers? Are they safe, are the passengers safe, which is fair, right? But then it was sort of like, well, okay, but . . and there were a lot of sensational stories in the press, which were like, oh, ‘predator Uber driver, takes, you know, kidnaps child’. And like, that was true, right. There were Uber drivers who did terrible things, but like there's also people who are stuck at work, working for Uber. And they like, faced a lot of issues. So the question I was trying to answer was, we've got thousands of women in these cars on the road with strangers, like... what systems have been built to protect them, if any at all. And how do people feel about them? So you know, many months of talking to many, many women who had these experiences, and looking at all of the documents that they had with their conversations with Uber, you wouldn't be surprised. It wasn't a super flattering portrait. Uber, I heard later on that, Uber's top PR people called, I think maybe all the way up to the Editor in Chief to really dispute it, like the very premise of the article. To their credit, I don't think I even heard about it until later, after it ran. That's all just say, I think, you know, yeah. I think that when you touch certain nerves, I think one of the differences, I guess, between some of these companies and some other companies that get negative coverage is there's a thin-skinness. I think sometimes, if you write about like a defense contractor or you write about a lobbying firm for someone who's sort of just like... they're just kind of like, ‘yeah, this is part of our— we're going to get critical coverage, people are going to call us all sorts of names and we just soldier on’. But like, when you have these companies, this business model, which is to sell consumer goods, to a certain extent, they are very concerned about how consumers view them. Yeah, they'll go to war over certain things, you know? And they also like, they staff up to do that. There's a reason why Amazon's top PR guy used to be Obama's press secretary, they prepare for these things. No one's ever tried to sue me. No one's ever threatened me. I think it’s just been like, in a certain sense that's part of the combat. Their job is to make themselves look really good and your job is to sort of figure out what's true and what's not true, and often you're at odds because the facts don't make them look good. So there you are. And that's the game.
So I went to this really annoying school where there's a lot of homework and all of the students, like, did it all. And I was kinda pissed off about like, how much—I was the editor-in-chief of my high school newspaper; it felt like they were trying to keep us busy, not to learn but to be busy. And also, because of how much homework there was, there was a lot of cheating. One person would do the homework and then they would just pass it around and people would just copy the other person's homework. It was a racket. And so as editor-in-chief of the newspaper, I thought, you know, if the school knew how much cheating was going on, maybe they would realize that the homework load is totally unreasonable, because it’s leading to cheating. So I like did an ‘investigation’, where I walked around the school and was like, ‘Do you cheat on your homework? Do you cheat on your homework?’ And I asked like fifty people, and they were all like, ‘yeah, we cheat on our homework, obviously, everyone does’. And so then I put a front-page story in the school newspaper, which was like, ‘everyone cheats on their homework, all the time’. And it became a big deal. Like the school board had a meeting, there was a whole thing and people got really upset, and my parents got upset and it was... The lesson from this, though, I would say, is that taking something that everyone knew – everyone knew this thing, but like everyone knew it in a diffuse way, it wasn't like put in one place that was authoritative. So all I did was do that. And that, that freaked people out. And I feel like a lot of journalism is sort of doing that. It's like, everyone knows that it totally can suck to be an Uber driver, but then once someone writes a definitive article that puts it all in one place, all of a sudden, the company's on the back foot, right? Even though like, nothing is really new in a sense, someone just went out, collected it, verified it, put it in one place. So I do think a lot of journalism is doing that. And I think a lot of investigating is doing that. But yeah, it was fun, I guess. I don't know. I should go find—this is before the internet, so the funny thing about this story is like, this thing doesn't exist any more. It's not like I can Google this story. I graduated high school in 2006. Our school newspaper wasn't on the internet. So I could be making this all up. Probably. Yeah.
I think storytelling is the most interesting part of journalism. It's the hardest part of journalism. It's the most creative part of journalism. It's also the part of journalism that’s most often flubbed and overlooked. I mean, there's a whole school of journalism now which is just like Fox storytelling, bullet points, right? Like Axios will publish an investigation, and it's just like bullet points. And there'll actually be like crazy new stuff they found, but they're like, eh, like who cares about the story? Let's just bullet point it. And they do. They recently had some massive thing about Chinese spies. It was all these crazy revelations in it, but they presented it like a powerpoint. So I think the storytelling part, for me is very, very important. It's the highest level of the art. It's obviously the way you get most people to care about things. You know, it's complicated. Because the storytelling is also the part of it that’s the entertainment value, right? And there's a business side to journalism. So perhaps some of the reason why storytelling has become an important part of journalism is because of that: selling a magazine story, sensationalizing it, making it engaging reading. But I guess I would say when I'm looking into something, I am thinking the entire time about what is the narrative here? What is the story here? How will this detail that I'm in the middle of uncovering, how will I unfurl that when I tell that story. And if I'm doing it for a wire story, I'm probably just thinking about it as when I tell my friends, like about what I did, I still think in terms of reveals, tension and contradiction and all the tools of storytelling.
So I published a piece last week, which was looking at this kind of quiet roll out in American prisons and jails of natural language processing surveillance of inmate communications. Which basically, we – a colleague and I – have kind of uncovered that there's all these pilot programmes percolating all around the US to run all the phone calls that people have who are incarcerated with their loved ones outside or whomever outside through an NLP processing program and flag it for all sorts of slang words that could be, if they're in a gang, and basically analyze all of their communications using a sort of black box AI system that could get people into trouble. And no one had really written that much about it, or the thing we had uncovered was that Congress had sort of quietly pushed the green button to expand this programme. As a storyteller, that's not very interesting unless I can find a person who that happened. Like, it's kind of interesting, but if you go to a party and tell that story, and you're like, ‘this thing is happening’, that's only part of the story that you're telling at the party. Someone's like, ‘okay’. The technology is not a character. It can never be a character, right? Like, you need a human. So that's all to say, I'm in a mad dash to find someone who's been impacted by this technology, which is hard and I'll probably fail. But I think that maybe some kind of investigators would sort of see their job being done at finding this tech. For me, I really need to find a person whose life has intersected with it.
I wrote a piece last year for Harper's Magazine, which was looking at the growth of this new financial product called the income share agreement, which is something that's being used all over the world, but increasingly in the United States, as a way for people to finance their education. And basically they sell a percentage of their future earnings to investors in exchange for access to education. I identified pretty easily that I wanted to look at this financial product hadn't been written about. Then there was all these interesting ideological claims that were being made by this financial product about what motivates students, you know, what motivates institutions. But it's nothing without a person, right? And so I spent months and months and months trying to find the right person to help explain that's that product. You know, I wish that I had a really concise way of saying how it worked. I talked to dozens and dozens of people, and I found someone who was the combination of incredibly open, incredibly... who had a fascinating life story, was honest. He had been screwed over by this financial product and he had documents to prove it, but he also wasn't chomping at the bit to go after this company. Like I found him, he didn't find me. And I found him and he was kind of that exact level of like, ‘I can talk about this, but, you know, I don't know’. And it kind of developed in that way where it was the natural level of interest. He wasn't too motivated to be the character. Yeah. It just all sort of clicked. And I don't know, it's a special alchemy to it, I think. I've done a lot of that with like, hmm, like when I've written about tech, like gig economy stuff, you have to spend a lot of time finding the right people to talk about that as well. A lot of it honestly boils down to people who have documentation. I guess I would say, no matter how good your character is, you need to be sure they're not lying to you. And if you actually think about proving to someone that something happened to you, it can be kind of hard, right? Like, ‘oh, this thing happened to me. I swear’. Okay. Did you text someone about it at the time? Are there emails? If you actually peel back the layers of proving the thing happened to you, it can become quite difficult. So a lot of it, I guess, boils down to someone has to be able to prove it. Yeah. I mean, it's a mess. It's really hard. It's the hardest thing. It’s obviously the hardest part of this job. It's easy enough to like, find some contract on the internet, find someone who got caught up in that system. Yeah. That's what I spend most of my time trying to figure out.
So there's all sorts of ways that you can find people, for things. And it really depends on what's going on. So for stories I've done about gig workers, I've gone basically through three routes. One is like, there are obviously advocacy organizations and pressure groups that have people. And that can be good if you're looking for a very specific situation. But if you're looking for people who have a new situation, it's not... or like, you know, if you're trying to uncover something new, that might not be the best place to look. I mean, I'll give you a very concrete example: Some time ago, Amazon announced that they were going to put these cameras in all their delivery vans. This company called Netradyne, makes a four lens, AI powered camera that they put into a delivery van to detect all sorts of things that the driver might be doing wrong, from yawning to looking at their phone. And I was like in a mad dash to find people who had actually dealt with these cameras. They had just been rolled out. In that situation, I finding those people: Reddit. That's where you find those people. So I was on Reddit for hours and hours and hours, messaging every single person in the Amazon forums, drivers forums, trying to convince them to give me their phone number. If they would, trying to convince them to send me a picture of their badge so I could verify that they're real, trying to send them, get them to send me, and then if that was true, get them emails from their dispatch explaining that they had been subject to this new type of surveillance. And that led me to writing a story about drivers who quit Amazon because they didn't want to be surveilled by this new camera. You know, this was like within 48 hours of the new tech. People I talked to were not part of any union organizers. They’re just guys, who are like, ‘Oh my God, this camera is really creepy. I'm going to go on Reddit and complain’. And then, I find that guy quickly. There's no one size fits all, right? I mean, I think lawyers are always an amazing place to find characters. People filing lawsuits are awesome, but you gotta be the first one to know about the lawsuit, but there's a million documents generated by legal procedures. I actually really like writing about stories that involve lawsuits, because that gives you like, you have some ground to stand on. People make claims in legal papers. But yeah, I mean, finding stories, finding characters is super tough, especially in the pandemic times, it's been nuts.
The extent to which I am good at this, I think is because it doesn't feel like work, you know? I mean, I think it is work in the sense that most of the time, I guess I’d probably prefer to be like having a beer with a friend and talking about Seinfeld or something, sure. That's an easier way to spend an afternoon. But when I'm like working on a story and I'm really excited about it, it does feel like something I might do anyway. I genuinely want to know, but I talk to a lot of other people who have other kinds of jobs. I think what motivates them often is – outside of money – is kind of fear. It's like, ‘well, I need to do this, or I'll be shamed, or I'll be... I'll be shamed by my superiors or I'll look silly in front of my colleagues’. You know, maybe the positive side will be like, ‘I'll be praised’. So the thing about this work is that stuff is all in the background. Like it's a public act, it’s a performance. Like you are getting ready to present information to the public. And that is what you're doing.
I'm a violinist, a big part of my childhood was musical performance. Maybe, maybe I liked that. You know, maybe the thing when I practised... I used to practise a lot, like an hour and a half a day, which is a lot for a teenager. It was my big thing, besides creating scandals in the student newspaper. And I wanted my teacher to be like, ‘oh yeah, that box sounds really good’. Like sure. But the real thing I wanted to do was play the concert. That's why I practised. I needed to, like, crush this Beethoven in front of the school. This sounds so nerdy in retrospect, but whatever, you know, classical music is cool, I think. Anyway, so I think there's something there. I think that I seek out a sort of task that is like, I'll be held accountable by more than just my boss or my parents, but there's a public accountability, you're in dialogue with a larger audience. I think that's the part of journalism that’s really huge for me. It's not just like any old thing, right? Like I care deeply about taking down those who abuse their power. It's a corny thing, but that's the only reason I'm in this like deep, deep kind of loathing for institutions that abuse their power, for people who think they can spend all day fucking people over and then go home and like not bring that home with them. Like that kind of ... So anyway, it's not just about doing something for the public, it's about doing a certain type of thing for the public that, you know – I wouldn't want to write a profile of some celebrity or something. It wouldn't really be for me.
I've been accused, from time to time, of over reporting. I've been told sometimes by editors, ‘you have it, it’s done’ and been like, ‘but maybe I don't, maybe we need to make a couple more phone calls, or maybe we need to read more documents’. But I don't know, it really catches you like a fever. It's very hard to describe. I would not describe myself as one of these workaholic types. Like, I like to chill. I like my free time. I'm also one of these people who like, once I've gotten pulled in by something, I will keep going. So my work/investigative style is definitely in like fits, of a lot of work, staying up late, working on things, having to put stuff down and then long periods of like, ‘whatever, I hope I have another idea sometime’. I think the people who are the best investigators are people who are really methodical, that are constantly sort of checking every brick. You know, one of the best pieces of investigative journalism ever is this piece – I think it won the Pulitzer prize in 2015 or 2016 – was a piece in the New York Times about Walmart in Mexico. And it's by David Barstow and Alexander Shenique. They basically discovered that Walmart had been systematically bribing its way into all of its facilities in Mexico. Basically Walmart, like ... and it was known at the highest levels of Walmart. They had a business strategy in Mexico that was just nuts. They were just paying off politicians, paying off ... just like the whole way they were operating the country was just illegal ten thousand ways. And the way that they proved it was they went to every single municipality over the course of two years, and slowly reconstructed what happened. And I got to see the binders they used – they had dozens of binders that were just full of maps of all the Walmarts in Mexico that they pulled week after week after week. And if you meet these two people, they're like, chillest people in the world. You have no like frantic Jewish energy like me, they're just really Zen. You know, this won the Pulitzer prize. I think that's the people who really crush it. I don't think it's the frenetic, rabbit-hole people. I think it's the people who see a thing and they see, two years down the line, I'm going to crack this case if I do these 17,000 steps. And then they go do those steps and they make their chance of success really high, because they've thought about it really carefully. And then they rinse and repeat that for their whole careers. Those are the champs. I'll never be that person, but I see the champs and I respect it. Sure.
Every time I work in a team, I wonder like, how do I ever not work in a team? Because I'll notice, ‘Hey, wait, didn't they say this’? And we wrote this and they'll be like, oh shit, thank you for noticing that. And then they'll say like, wait, but you wrote this and the... ability to self police when you have two or more people, it's just huge. So it's kind of terrifying to imagine flying alone. But more broadly than that, I think, I do see myself as part of a very hyper, uber, loose collection of journalists of my generation who are trying to take on powerful interests in the US, but it's super loose. I'm not like, I just have people I'm simpatico with, I guess, like, I like their stories, people I know might like my stories. I'm not part of any sort of like community of sharing information. Journalism's a competitive sport, right? That's the thing. So, it's a collaborative sport, it’s a competitive sport, it's a team sport, it’s an individual sport. Not really a sport. I guess I keep saying the word sport, but it's not really a sport, but you know what I mean? There's some competitive dimensions built into it and you make collaboration, or at least being part of a community where you're sharing your ideas. You've got to be a bit guarded. I feel like a lot of times I talk to reporters that I know, and know me. I'm not one of these people, but there are a lot of people who are like, yeah, I’m working on this and I can't tell you about it. Really? What do you think I'm going to do here? Like burn it all down, steal your idea and never talk to you again? But that is in the water. That is part of the culture of a lot of journalists.
The few times in my life that I've surreptitiously recorded something I felt so, so cool. A couple of times I have walked into someone's office with a phone recording in my pocket – in states where this is legal – and that's what I always imagined being like a private investigator to be like, you're just doing that all the time. Because the thing about being a journalist, unless you go through all these sort of ethical hoops of going undercover, you have to identify yourself as a journalist from the jump. You really can't lie to people. And I'm fine with that. I never lie to people, I always identify myself as a journalist. But I always wonder what horizons would be open to me if I could lie to people. It's a whole different world, right? If I could come up with a persona, if I could create a fake like...what Black Cube and these groups do to get information is a totally different toolkit. I mean, there are pluses and minuses to both toolkits. I think there are plenty of people who would talk to a journalist, but would not talk to some weird person pretending to be like a dodgy businessman with oil interests and like a contract out – who knows. But I have always thought about that toolkit and how that would be kind of fun, right? If you're doing it for the right reasons.
I think there's two things that are true at once, which is there's a tremendous amount of information that is pretty publicly available, that hasn't been snatched off the tree and baked in the cake and presented as a story. But at the same time, I think there's this – I say this all the time to people – I think there's a massive illusion generated by the internet, which is that most important information is on it, in some form or another. And I think that illusion is really dangerous, especially for a younger generation of journalists. I got my first smartphone after university. I'm a millennial. I got on Twitter for the first time in 2013. I'm not like someone, I'm not a person who's like super internetty in terms of the journalists’ spectrum. There's incredible amount of information that can be gleaned from talking to people and the stuff that's not on the internet. But some people just tell you. We were talking to a source, recently for this story of looking at the use of AI in prisons and jails, and he just mentioned very casually a place in the country where something very interesting was going on. This was not a secret, there's no record of this fact on the internet. It doesn't exist on the entire internet, but it is a thing that is known by a guy, it's not a secret. It's just, no one had asked him before. And he was like, ‘oh right’. And I looked, and I was like, how could I miss this important fact in the thing that I'm currently investigating? So there's a lot of things that are in that category, those facts, they're like, a lot of the juice is there.
What I really admire in the best investigative journalism that I've consumed – and when I think about it, most recently the thing that jumps to mind for me is Bad Blood, You know, the John Carreyrou, the Wall Street Journal reporters’ book on Theranos – is you know, the people who have the guts to swim against the stream. The story of that story, basically: Theranos had been, had gotten the New Yorker treatment, right? So literally, the company had been praised in the New Yorker, which is an organization that's famous for its fact-checking. So from the outside, this company has not only been vetted by the investors. It's not only been on the front of Fortune magazine, which who cares, right? That's just who you know. It's been praised in the New Yorker, which has the most rigorous fact-checking ever. But to look at a company like that and decide actually it's a fraud, that's the stuff that just blows my mind. I am so impressed by that. And that happens all the time. And that's what I think is so important about investigative journalism as its countervailing force in the world where like, as an institution – like thinking about it really as an institution, not just a set of people, but as like a wind, like a certain force in the world. And you have all these other forces in the world, incentive structures, and a lot of them are money, capital, popularity, democracy. They all have their own incentive structures to promote or to undermine certain institutions. And at its best, like journalism shows up as this separate set of forces. Well, let's stress test this guys, against our own practices, which are not better or worse than others, but they just have their own ways.
The Exposing the Invisible podcast series is produced by Tactical Tech.
Interview, production and sound design by Jo Barratt.
Tactical Tech's Exposing the Invisible team includes Laura Ranca, Wael Eskandar, Marek Tuszynski and Christy Lange.
Music by Wael Eskandar.
Additional music is July and Crying Earth by Kai Engel used under a Creative Commons 4.0 Attribution licence and Idea by Kai Engel used under a Creative Commons non-commercial 4.0 Attribution licence. Sound effect by Stephenkujo used under a Creative Commons 4.0 Attribution licence.
Additional sound effects used have been dedicated to the public domain by their creators.
Illustration by Ann Kiernan
This podcast episode is part of a series of resources and publications produced by Exposing the Invisible during a one-year project (September 2020 - August 2021) supported by the European Commission (DG CONNECT)
This content reflects the author’s view and the Commission is not responsible for any use that may be made of the information it contains.