Founder of CrowdTangle Hopes to Bring Transparency to Social Media

Senator Portman said in an emailed statement that “every new disclosure of problematic activities by social media companies reignites calls for congressional action.” Before answering those calls, he said, “Congress should take a step back to ensure that we are not legislating in the dark.”

For Mr. Silverman, the legislation is a return to politics. He came to the tech industry through an unusual path, which began in 2005 at the Center for Progressive Leadership, a nonprofit organization aimed at training a new generation of political leaders. He became interested in building online communities as a way to keep the program’s alumni connected. In 2011, he helped found a company then called OpenPage Labs, aimed at building social networks for progressive nonprofits using Facebook’s “open graph,” a short-lived program that allowed software developers to integrate their applications with Facebook.

The most successful element of that company was its ability to measure what was happening on Facebook pages and groups, and the company began licensing its analytical tools to publishers, among others. A significant customer was the fast-growing progressive media start-up Upworthy in 2013, followed by a wave of other media companies. I first met Mr. Silverman in that period, and it was clear that his company’s insight into which stories were spreading fastest on Facebook offered a distinct advantage to writers and editors looking for traffic.

In 2017, Facebook made the service free, and opened it up to thousands of new users. Eventually, human rights organizations and fact checkers seeking to understand their own societies and improve their media also started using it, as well as journalists who wanted to understand Facebook itself.

“That was when we began to realize how much of the outside world was eager and depended on seeing what was happening on the platform,” Mr. Silverman said.

But as the news about Facebook’s impact on society turned negative, CrowdTangle was increasingly seen internally as a threat. In July 2020, my colleague Kevin Roose started a Twitter account listing Facebook’s most engaged links every day, much of it inflammatory right-wing commentary. The account was an irritant to Facebook’s executives, “embarrassed by the disparity between what they thought Facebook was — a clean, well-lit public square where civility and tolerance reign — and the image they saw reflected in the Twitter lists,” as Mr. Roose put it after he obtained internal emails debating the future of CrowdTangle last July.

Nick Clegg, Facebook’s vice president for global affairs, complained in the emails that “our own tools are helping journos to consolidate the wrong narrative.”