Remembering that time Bill Peduto surveilled Pittsburgh social media in secret and nobody in town cared, or: how I learned to love independent media

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Here’s a peek at how the news is made. Or sometimes isn’t.

Last May, City Paper’s Ryan Deto reported on the May 12, 2021, City Council committee hearing, during which it came to light that Mayor Bill Peduto’s office wanted to renew the contract on powerful social media monitoring software Zencity. Developed by an Israeli company of the same name, Zencity can be used to take people’s public social media posts, assign it a mood or sentiment, and run the data through an algorithm to provide data-heavy insights into how citizens feel about new legislation, policies, or virtually any other civic matter.

The software was acquired through the city’s COVID-19 emergency disaster declaration, ostensibly to gauge how people were holding up under quarantine. It had been in use by the mayor’s office for one year without city council’s knowledge, and without any real oversight or understanding as to what they were using it for.

The whole thing piqued my interest. Why did no one seem to care, in the media or at city council, that there was clearly some questionable stuff going on in the mayor’s office? 

“Do we have clear policies in place to make sure that we are protecting the public?” asked Councilwoman Deb Gross of her colleagues at the final vote to approve the Zencity contract. Gross had spent the weekend between council sessions speaking with AI experts about the ethical implications such software may pose, and her office never heard back from an email sent to the mayor’s office asking who was using the software or in what capacity. 

There was absolutely no reason to rubber-stamp the legislation, she said. She challenged the other council member’s silence directly, alleging that they didn’t want to talk about Zencity “because the mayor’s office was using it.”

The $30,000 annual contract passed anyway, 8-1, with Gross the lone dissenting vote. 

Email records reveal that between the preliminary and final City Council vote, Todd Smith, Digital Community Specialist with the City of Pittsburgh’s Department of Innovation & Performance, reached out to Zencity for talking points on how to sell the software to the city council, hoping that the contract could still pass with a unanimous vote. 

Try to avoid public safety issues that elicit ‘big brother’ feelings,” he wrote, asking Zencity instead to highlight the software’s use in other cities and to provide talking points about benign issues like “snowplows” and “trash collection” instead.

On May 24, I filed a Right-To-Know Law request with the city, for “electronic correspondence and other documents and data regarding the City of Pittsburgh’s acquisition, implementation and use of Zencity software, as well as data and information from the software itself.”

The process takes some time, but if you want to break news and obtain yet-unseen information, it’s essential. 

After I received a reply I reached out to the Austin-based tech outlet The Daily Dot. I had recently applied for a FOIA fellowship with them, and the editor kindly offered me to pitch anything that might fit their tech-centric publication.

The result was a piece that ran on October 20, 2021. It used Pittsburgh as a window into Zencity software. I cited experts who said that the voices on social media aren’t necessarily representative of society at large. Zencity says their software gives voice to the unheard “silent majority,” but some worry that the software can be used to beta-test and refine political messaging, as opposed to using it to cultivate policies based on the will of the people. In Klamath Falls, Oregon, for example, the police department used Zencity to sway the public’s opinion on the purchase of a $300,000 armored rescue vehicle, after it was first met with overwhelmingly negative feedback. Last August, a police agency in Minnesota told CBS News they used Zencity to focus and augment their messaging, “to increase that trust, increase that legitimacy and raise that positive sentiment.”

There are certainly uses for Zencity software that a public official would find beneficial during a pandemic, but records show that Peduto wanted it specifically for its sentiment analysis capabilities since at least 2017. Many of the same staff members who were involved in efforts to acquire the software for years were, as of spring 2020, repackaging it “as part of … ongoing COVID-19 response.” In reality, the documents revealed the mayor’s office mostly used it to gauge resident reactions to hot-button issues and other pet projects.

That Bill Peduto would put an inordinate amount of emphasis on what people were saying about him and his policies on social media should come as no surprise to Pittsburgh residents active on social media.

The mayor’s office first used Zencity to gauge how city residents reacted to Peduto’s social media posts during the 2020 protests in East Liberty against police violence and in support of Black lives. On June 1, Peduto tweeted that claims of police firing tear gas, bean bags, and other “less-lethal” ammunition at protesters unprovoked were “conspiracy theories.” A Zencity advisor provided the mayor with a policy brief on the morning of June 3, 2020, informing him that his social media posts were being interpreted as supportive of police over protesters and Pittsburgh citizens. Later that afternoon, the mayor shifted his position and signaled support for an independent investigation into police tactics at the protests. In the press release, Peduto cited his “extensive review of social media” as one of the reasons for his decision.

Despite all this, the piece for the Daily Dot failed to make much of an impact here in town. And there was still more of the story to tell.

Right-to-know documents revealed that the mayor’s office used Zencity in the leadup to the 2021 mayoral primaries to gauge how Pittsburgh residents felt about OnePGH, a nonprofit fund outside city oversight through which the city’s wealthy nonprofits would make voluntary payments in lieu of taxes. During Peduto’s tenure, the city lacked a mechanism to collect these payments from nonprofits, so they didn’t pay. OnePGH would be the solution.

Documents reveal the mayor’s office used the taxpayer-funded software to monitor social media chatter in Pittsburgh from April 28, the day before his long-awaited OnePGH announcement, until May 4, two weeks before the primary election.

The report concluded: “A review of the discourse reveals that commentary was decidedly critical of the plan and accounted for 94% of this negative sentiment.” Zencity’s “insight” also contained a chart with the most common words the public used on social media when discussing the OnePGH announcement. They included “bill,” “million,” “taxes,” “promised,” and “desperate.”

As local author Joseph L. Flatley tweeted at the time, Peduto “was voted out as a technocrat and his technology failed him when he needed it the most.” After trying unsuccessfully for years to acquire Zencity for its powerful social media insights, all it could really tell him was that people seemed to hate his signature OnePGH plan.

I pitched follow-up stories on these unreported issues to the local press. The mayor’s office had wrongfully used the city’s Covid emergency declaration to acquire Zencity, and then used that very software for what was effectively campaign polling in the days leading up to the closely-fought primary election. He would eventually lose to current Mayor Ed Gainey.

According to City Controller Michael Lamb, what happened was “unethical, and arguably illegal.” 

Bruce Ledewitz, Professor of Law at the Duquesne University School of Law, said the acquisition of Zencity software during the city’s COVID-19 emergency is “a ridiculous use of the emergency declaration.” There’s a difference between using the declaration to acquire masks or medicine outside conventional procurement methods, versus gauging how people react to policies put in place during the pandemic—such as citizen reaction to COVID-19 restrictions on alcohol sales—let alone issues with no connection to COVID-19 at all. 

Despite having this all on the record, the local press wouldn’t touch it. Mostly, I was ghosted. One editor told me point-blank that it would cost too much “political capital” to run. Honestly, I admired their candor. There’s only so much controversy most news outlets can stomach at any given time, and in this case, with Peduto already on his way out of office, it seemed that the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze.

I was frustrated. The story was backed by hundreds of pages of email records and other supporting documents, as well as interviews with public officials and sources both on and off the record. It wasn’t Watergate, but it was an important story to tell in Pittsburgh, and I couldn’t find it a home.

The Pittsburgh Independent exists in large part to publish impactful stories that may not otherwise find a home in establishment or corporate-funded media. 

Pittsburgh Mayor Ed Gainey’s mayoral spokesperson, Maria Montaño, confirmed to the Independent that Zencity software is no longer in use. 

Former Mayor Peduto did not respond to calls and messages sent to his personal cell phone and email address. 

Here, for the first time publicly, are the specific Zencity briefings requested by the mayor’s office, which purport to tell how Pittsburgh residents felt about a variety of issues in 2020 and 2021.

Brian Conway is an independent journalist based in Pittsburgh. Published in Vice, the Chicago Tribune and elsewhere, his investigative reporting into lead in Pittsburgh’s drinking water earned 2018 first prize in environmental reporting from the Keystone Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and prompted the water authority to strengthen its safe water drinking guidelines. His reporting on Carnegie Mellon’s war research was the first to link any higher education institution with the Pentagon’s Project Maven. His breaking news and investigative reporting into Pittsburgh’s Hays Woods parkland prompted residents to protest and derail a high-end residential housing project therein. View his portfolio at brianconway.me