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A job interview in 1935. Photo: Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

Once, a misguided tweet or racist Facebook post from years ago might have avoided a hiring manager’s notice. But now, artificial intelligence is leaving no tweet unread in the search for job candidates' bad online behavior.

Why it matters: Companies are placing applicants under a high-powered microscope as they seek to avoid hiring employees who might create a toxic environment or harm the firm's image. But it's also limiting employee opportunities.

In February, the NYT fired writer Quinn Norton within hours of announcing her hiring. In that time, several old tweets surfaced in which she had used or amplified racist and homophobic slurs.

  • The Times said it had not previously seen the tweets — several needles in a haystack of Norton’s nearly 90,000 messages.
  • This is the sort of public fiasco companies would rather avoid. But while HR can’t sift through a candidate’s entire Twitter timeline, a machine can.

Enter the algorithms. Several companies offer to set the pattern-matching power of AI on the social feeds of job hopefuls to uncover posts that are racist, sexist, violent, or otherwise objectionable.

  • Fama contracts with about 100 companies, each with more than 1,000 employees. For each online check, it returns a report with links to offending posts.
  • Last month, Predictim began offering a similar service to parents seeking babysitters. The company goes further than Fama, asking candidates for permission to access their private posts and comments in addition to public ones. The resulting report — a sample is available here — assigns risk scores ranging from 1 to 5, overall and for categories that include drug use, bullying, and "bad attitude."

Privacy advocates worry that such systems can make basic mistakes with lasting effects.

"The automated processing of human speech, including social media, is extremely unreliable even with the most advanced AI. Computers just don’t get context. I hate to think of people being unfairly rejected from jobs because some computer decides they have a 'bad attitude,' or some other red flag."
— Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union

AI-powered hiring systems can be extremely susceptible to bias.

  • If a system is fed hiring data and learns that male candidates are hired more often than female ones, it can start to favor men, like an AI program Amazon tested.
  • To avoid this trap, Fama and Predictim withheld sensitive information like gender and race from the training data, so their AI systems evaluate only the contents of social media posts.
  • Both companies’ CEOs told Axios they work to minimize bias by carefully choosing training data, using a diverse group of people to label it, and regularly testing outputs for fairness.

Users of Predictim, the month-old babysitter-checking service, have already run about 300 scans, said CEO Sal Parsa. Of those, 10% were flagged as moderately risky or higher, and 2.7% as very risky.

Go deeper

Indianapolis mass shooting suspect legally bought 2 guns, police say

Marion County Forensic Services vehicles are parked at the site of a mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis, Indiana, on Friday. Photo: Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images

The suspected gunman in this week's mass shooting at a FedEx facility in Indianapolis legally purchased two assault rifles believed to have been used in the attack, police said late Saturday.

Of note: The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department's statement that Brandon Scott Hole, 19, bought the rifles last July and September comes a day after the FBI said in a statement to news outlets that a "shotgun was seized" from the suspect in March 2020 after his mother raised concerns about his mental health.

U.S. and China agree to take joint climate action

US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry waves as he arrives at the Elysee Presidential Palace on March 10, 2021 in Paris. Photo: Chesnot/Getty Images

Despite an increasingly tense relationship, the U.S. and China agreed Saturday to work together to tackle global climate change, including by "raising ambition" for emissions cuts during the 2020s — a key goal of the Biden administration.

Why it matters: The joint communique released Saturday evening commits the world's two largest emitters of greenhouse gases to work together to keep the most ambitious temperature target contained in the Paris Climate Agreement viable by potentially taking additional emissions cuts prior to 2030.

Biden defends not immediately raising refugee cap

President Biden speaking with reporters after leaving his cart following his first round of golf as president at Wilmington Country Club in Wilmington, Delaware, on Saturday. Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden on Saturday sought to explain why he didn't immediately lift the Trump administration's historically low refugee cap.

Driving the news: Several Democrats accused Biden Friday of not fulfilling his pledge to raise the limit after it was announced he'd keep the cap. The White House said later it would be raised by May 15. Biden told reporters Saturday, "We're going to increase the number."

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