Member Spotlight - A Conversation with Karen Hao

No. 42


Since its creation in March 2019, Chinese Storytellers has grown into a community of over 400 journalists and media professionals, who cover a diverse range of topics across the world.

In this new “Members Spotlight” series, we will have in-depth conversations with our members about how they built their careers.

This week, I’m talking with Karen Hao, who writes about AI at MIT Technology Review, about how she came to journalism from Silicon Valley, the most challenging story she has worked on so far, and her decision to move overseas to cover tech from and in Asia. I hope you enjoy this conversation and stay tuned for more like this in the future.


Isabelle Niu,
Co-founder, Chinese Storytellers

Karen Hao is a senior editor at MIT Technology Review, where she covers the latest research and social impacts of artificial intelligence. She writes a weekly newsletter, The Algorithm, which was named one of the best newsletters on the internet by The Webby Awards. She also co-produces an AI podcast, In Machines We Trust. In 2021, her piece on Facebook’s addiction to spreading misinformation was cited by Congress.

Q: How did you arrive at the intersection of storytelling and technology? 

I've always been really interested in affecting social change. When I was growing up, I really loved writing, but I had no exposure to journalism. I believed that tech was the way to bring about social change and I majored in engineering like my parents did. After college, I started working in Silicon Valley. I was working at this mission-driven company. I quickly became very disenchanted with this idea that tech can actually be a force for good because so much of the incentives around innovation today, especially in the Valley, are very geared towards short-term problems, which is completely misaligned with the global challenges in this century. I was working in a company that had a mission to tackle climate change. Within a year of me joining, [the company] completely folded in on itself. It didn't float because the mission wasn't profitable enough. And it just made me realize that maybe instead of being in the tech industry, I can cover the tech industry, hold companies accountable and nudge the incentives in a way that will engender more productive innovations. That's kind of how I ended up in journalism. 

Q: How has your background in engineering and experience in Silicon Valley shaped your coverage? 

Both the tech industry and the journalism industry are extremely elitist but in very different ways. Having graduated from MIT, it gives me street cred in the tech industry when I'm talking with people. When I first started, I confronted a lot of stereotypes. “Oh, you're a journalist and a woman, so you probably don't understand this technology.” I would be mansplained to, a lot. I would keep asking for technical details and not be getting technical details, so I would then drop in the conversation that I have an engineering degree from MIT. It wasn't until that kind of signaling that people would then start telling me a lot more. There's also just the networking effects. A lot of my classmates are now working in areas or research or within companies that I am covering. So I just naturally end up getting a lot of tips, or just hearing a lot more about stories that I should be pursuing through regular frank conversations, which I think is a big advantage. I don't think there's actually any kind of additional specialty, or that tech reporting is harder than any other type of reporting. I just don't believe that's true. What is true is that because I have this degree, and I'm able to signal that, and rapidly build trust with sources, because they look for that kind of signaling. So for people who are not coming from that background, even though they can absolutely learn the topic as quickly as I could, they might feel more friction when it comes to getting the trust of [sources].

Q: What is the most challenging and rewarding story you’ve worked on in your career? What did that teach you about the tech industry? 

Definitely the story that I recently wrote about Facebook's responsible AI team. It took about six to seven months of reporting and three months of writing. The story was about the specific team at Facebook that has existed since the Cambridge Analytica scandal, but they had been doing work that they hadn't really told the public about for three years. When I learned that this team existed, I was just really curious about what they've been doing. Many of the conversations three years ago revolved around the way that Facebook's algorithms were leading to the demolition of democracy. Facebook clearly responded to the criticism by creating this team. But then somehow we ended up in an even worse-off state than before. What I essentially found was that the responsible AI team was working on problems that were just completely unrelated to fixing those problems. They were working on things that very much supported Facebook's growth; they weren't working on the things that were crucial to Facebook upbringing democracy because those things undermined Facebook's growth. [The story] also explores the question of when you have really good people at a company, can they actually affect systemic change? That very much ties into my own experience in Silicon Valley. I've always been really interested in how incentive structures can cause really good-hearted individuals to still fail. 

Q: What was the reporting process like? What takeaways about storytelling did you get from writing this story? 

Facebook had reached out to me about a year before the piece was published. They were asking me if I wanted to do a deep dive into the Facebook AI org, their research division. They set up a series of calls and the last one was about responsible AI, and I immediately decided that was the one I wanted to focus on. So I just started taking any calls that they would give me. What they wanted to talk to me about was their work on improving fairness, how to fight against biases in AI. But in parallel, I started reaching out on LinkedIn to all the people who had worked on the team but left, about what Facebook has been doing around misinformation and polarization, which is what I’m really interested in. Three months in, I started getting this weird disconnect between the internal story and the external story. I kept reporting on it but didn’t know how to connect the two seemingly completely parallel narratives. 

Then the Capitol riot happened. And I went back to Facebook’s PR and demanded to talk to the responsible AI team specifically about misinformation. Then once I talked to them, it became clear that the team was not doing anything related to misinformation. And that's when it suddenly coalesced into a story. What I've learned is when you're doing investigative reporting, where you're trying to persuade people who don't really have an incentive to talk to you, it just takes a really long time. I would just send out 50 emails to various people and then just wait a month or two months. And then responses would slowly trickle in. It was really low-level intensity. It probably wasn't until like four months in, that I felt like I already accumulated enough to then go to my editor and be like, “Hey, this is what I've been working on for the last four months. How do I take this from here?” I also had to fight back publishing pressure from Facebook throughout this time. 

After the story was eventually published, the response from Facebook was pretty negative. The CTO said that my piece had been a hit piece on the Responsible AI team which, if you actually read the story, is extremely empathetic towards the team. There were also a lot of Twitter activities where people falsely accused me, questioned my credentials and my reporting. For the first four or five days after the story was published, I was in a very bad mental state. But over time, it just made me feel really good because they haven’t been able to actually take apart or challenge the core of the reporting. What I found was more significant than I had expected.  

Q: How has your identity as a “Chinese storyteller” affected your experience in journalism? 

The more that I've met other Chinese storytellers in this community, the more that I realize I have a slightly different path. A lot of journalists who are Chinese nationals have really been trying to move away from being pegged as China reporters. I’m the exact opposite. I am an American national who is trying to become a China reporter. Because I was born in the U.S., I've just always had this longing to understand China better, because I did not grow up there. The only real understanding that I have in this country is through my parents, which is 25 years outdated. One of the reasons why I've always wanted to become a foreign correspondent in China is to be able to understand and develop my own relationship with the country, not just through my parents. 

Q: You are planning to make a big move to relocate to Asia and cover tech from there. What was the thinking behind this decision? Besides the food, obviously.

The need to have good Asian food is so real! Like many immigrant families, growing up it was just me and my parents. I don't actually have a strong relationship with any of the rest of my extended family because we've never lived in the same country. There are always cultural barriers, language barriers, barriers of lived experience. So I really want to take the opportunity to be closer to them.

From a professional level, I've already started establishing myself as a tech reporter. And I think one of the reasons why I was able to establish myself quickly is because there’s a huge hunger for reading about AI and understanding AI. I think the same thing is true with China reporting. If I can really make the China tech and AI intersection my home, then it'll help establish myself even further. In some ways, my identity has been an advantage in terms of helping me get there. People see I’m ethnically Chinese, so it makes sense that I want to cover China. It’s not really an uphill battle for me. But what’s interesting is that a lot of people assume that I’m an expert on China just because of my ethnicity. It's really awkward sometimes. But I also do want to become an expert on China eventually, so I don’t want to keep signaling the opposite. Plus, it’s a weird correction to make. So I always end up just saying, “Thank you so much. These are some of the people whom I think are even more knowledgeable on these topics than I am!” 

Writers Isabelle Niu; Copy Editor: Shen Lu.

Chinese Storytellers is a community serving and elevating Chinese professionals in the global media industry. Follow us @CNStorytellers. Questions? Suggestions? Comments? Tell us.