In the last 15 years, Twitter has gone from an SMS-based messaging platform to a social network with hundreds of millions of users. In recent years, conservative politicians and activists have railed against “cancel culture,” claiming Twitter and other social media outlets are biased against them—hence, the existence of right-wing alternatives like Gab, Parler, and Trump’s new Truth Social. However, Twitter has just published some internal research that suggests the opposite. According to its research, its algorithm actually favors right-wing voices.
You can read the full report, which is available for download directly from Twitter. The 27-page PDF leverages the expertise of computer science researchers from the University of Cambridge, University College London, and the University of California – Berkeley. It focuses on the Home timeline, which is the algorithmically driven feed that everyone sees by default in Twitter.
The researchers analyzed millions of tweets that appeared in users’ Home feeds between April 1 and August 15, 2020. The tweets identified for use in the study were from elected officials in seven countries. They used public data like official websites and political registration to determine who counted as a conservative voice. Then, the researchers crunched the numbers to compare the pure reverse chronological Home layout to the default “Top Tweets.” There are several key findings, some more concerning than others. For example, it should come as no surprise that during 2020, the algorithm amplified political speech in general. However, just because one political account ranked higher, that didn’t mean everyone in the same political group would see the same boost.
On the flip side, Twitter confirms that conservative accounts are being favored by the algorithm. This is true in six out of the seven countries studied, the lone exception being Germany, which is particularly sensitive about right-wing speech for obvious reasons. In addition to conservative politicians getting top billing, the news outlets they promote are also seeing wider promotion in the algorithm. Twitter’s ongoing quest to hobble third-party apps also ensures most of its user base will see the algorithm-based feed, which they might not have in the past.
Currently, Twitter doesn’t know how to fix this, but it seems like it wants to. That’s more than we can say for Facebook, which is again in hot water after a former employee released a trove of materials that shows how the network tunes its algorithm to increase engagement by getting people outraged. Twitter says it is finalizing a partnership that will allow it to release large datasets to researchers without impacting user privacy. With additional research, Twitter might be able to find the trigger for these inequities. In the meantime, you can always manually switch from Top Tweets to chronological order.