When attempts to "fix" Twitter make it worse

Have you noticed the new feature that Twitter has been rolling out recently? You may be seeing some tweets from unfamiliar sources in your timeline soon. And that means people that you didn’t follow. How that works is the subject of an article by Oliver Darcy at CNN Business. Twitter claims that they’re just trying to expose people to “new content they might be interested in.” Darcy counters by saying that they could be “amplifying extreme political rhetoric.”

Imagine opening up the Twitter app on your phone and scrolling through your feed. Suddenly, you come across a hyper-partisan tweet calling Hillary Clinton the “godmother of ISIS.” It’s from a user you do not follow, and it’s not in your feed by virtue of a retweet from a user you do follow. So how did it get there?

Over the last several months, Twitter has begun inserting what it believes to be relevant and popular tweets into the feeds of people who do not subscribe to the accounts that posted them. In other words, Twitter has started showing users tweets from accounts that are followed by those they follow. This practice is different from the promoted content paid for by advertisers, as Twitter is putting these posts into the feeds of users without being paid and without consent from users.

Twitter said its goal with the practice is to expose users to new accounts and content that they might be interested in.

There’s quite a bit to unwrap here, so let’s just get to the major points. What the new Twitter algorithm is doing is sorting through who you follow and the topics those people comment on and then randomly (?) selecting some other accounts those people follow and showing you some of their tweets. Darcy’s complaint is that, as a reporter who follows people on both the political left and right, he winds up seeing “extreme political rhetoric and/or… conspiracy theories.”

He lists some of the accounts that have unexpectedly shown up in his feed from both sides of the rhetorical aisle, including prominent Democrats and Republicans. But when it comes to examples of “extreme” content, he pretty much limits it to conservatives, including James Woods, Jeanine Pirro, Candace Owens, and Diamond and Silk. Take that as you will. Apparently, there’s no “extreme” content on the left.

The bigger question here is whether Twitter is actually improving its service with this algorithm or further degrading it. It’s a private company so they can pretty much do whatever they want with their service, but this change really flies in the face of their original mission. The whole idea of Twitter was that you could pick and choose who to follow and tailor the experience to your own preferences. When you start injecting more people I didn’t choose to follow into my timeline, that’s not a plus.

More to the point, Twitter began going downhill the moment they decided that they should be the arbiters of what sort of content was best for you to see and what should be suppressed. As I’ve been screaming from the rooftops for years now, nobody – including the government – should be holding Twitter accountable for what anyone posts on their service. They provide a container, much like a global corkboard. What people choose to put on it is up to them. The users should be accountable for the content they tweet out, the owners of the service.

By the same token, if Jack Dorsey was actually interested in being an unbiased service provider and not the arbiter for what is or isn’t acceptable, he wouldn’t be shadowbanning anyone, muting them or otherwise rigging the system. If you start following some accounts that are tweeting out content you find offensive, either unfollow them or stop complaining. This new algorithm will probably do a terrible job of suggesting new accounts for you to follow even if it doesn’t wind up demonstrating some inbred political bias. But given our history with Twitter, the odds are that it will skew to the left anyway.