How Mark Hansen uses statistics and data to bolster journalism

As part of the James R. Thompson Distinguished Lecture Series, the statistician discusses a career path that landed him a byline in the New York Times.

mark hansen lecture

Mark Hansen’s byline made page one of the New York Times, probably a first for an academic with a Ph.D. in statistics.

“A bot is almost a perfect simulation of a human. Within six hours of our story appearing, 56,000 Twitter accounts just vanished,” said Hansen, the David and Helen Gurley Brown Professor of Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Hansen teaches advanced data analysis and computational journalism at Columbia. In 2018, he was co-author of “The Follower Factory,” a Times story that exposed the bot economy behind the sale of fake followers on Twitter.

Hansen spoke at Rice University on Oct. 1 as part of the James R. Thompson Distinguished Lecture Series in Statistics. His career has followed an unconventional path. He earned a Ph.D. in STAT from the University of California, Berkeley in 1994, worked at Bell Laboratories, taught at UCLA and in 2012 joined the Columbia journalism faculty.

“There’s a big role for statistics and data in journalism. There’s a real demand for journalists who are able to compute. At the very least, statisticians can show journalists what is possible,” Hansen told a group of STAT doctoral students before his lecture.

Data won’t replace more traditional forms of journalism but bolster it, he said.

“Data has narrative potential. That’s what we teach our students,” Hansen added.

A package of stories including “The Follower Factory” and related reporting on how Facebook and other tech firms permitted the spread of misinformation while failing to protect consumer privacy was a finalist for a 2019 Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting.

For months, Hansen’s team investigated how celebrities and politicians were able to purchase Twitter followers to boost their online prominence. The series is credited with sparking an investigation by the New York Attorney General into companies that sell followers and with the recent passage of California’s “Bot Law.” Though Hansen and his colleagues did not win the Pulitzer Prize they did receive a George Polk Award for National Reporting.

“Data journalists have a sense of agency about what they do. It’s powerful. We all have roles to play. As statisticians, you can erase the client and go out on your own,” said Hansen, who is currently part of a project to study the 2020 U.S. Census. 

The lecture series is named for James Thompson, the Noah Harding Emeritus Professor of Statistics, who was a statistician at Rice before there was a Statistics Department. He retired in 2016 after 46 years as a member of the faculty and died in 2017 at age 79.