How Twitter’s algorithm is amplifying extreme political rhetoric

Mar 22, 2019, 7:16 AM
FILE - This  April 26, 2017 photo shows the Twitter app on a mobile phone in Philadelphia. Twitter ...
FILE - This April 26, 2017 photo shows the Twitter app on a mobile phone in Philadelphia. Twitter says it will begin removing suspicious accounts it has locked, denying access to its owner, from how it counts users’ followers. This means Twitter users are likely to see a reduction in their follower counts in the coming days The company said Wednesday, July 11, 2018, that the move will not affect its number of monthly or daily active user figures. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
(AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

(CNN) — 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. In some situations, the practice is innocuous and perhaps even beneficial. For instance, if someone is watching the Super Bowl, but doesn’t follow Tom Brady, it might be useful for them to see his post-game tweet.

Relying on an algorithm to insert politically-oriented tweets into the feed of users, however, appears to come with unintended consequences. Some tweets contain extreme political rhetoric and/or advance conspiracy theories. And they are regularly posted by media or internet personalities who hold fringe views (many are also verified, giving them an added sense of credibility to people who may not be familiar with them), exposing users on the platform to radical content they may otherwise have not encountered.

In effect, the practice means Twitter may at times end up amplifying inflammatory political rhetoric, misinformation, conspiracy theories, and flat out lies to its users. This comes at a time when other platforms, like YouTube, are facing intense criticism for using algorithms to suggest content to users. It’s been documented, for instance, that YouTube’s algorithm has exposed users to fringe content and helped radicalize them online. YouTube has pledged to address the problem.

In a statement, a Twitter spokesperson told CNN Business that the company also aims to improve its feature. The spokesperson said, “We are constantly working to bring people who use Twitter relevant content, and one way we do that is by looking at content and accounts followed by people you follow. This does mean that you might sometimes see accounts or content you don’t agree with, but our efforts should not amplify behavior that is meant to intimidate, harass, or threaten others. We will continue to work to improve our efforts here, and people always have the option of turning off our curation if they just want to see content from the people they follow.”

The feature affects different users in different ways because it relies on the accounts followed by the user to determine which tweets to insert into the timeline. It does not appear to be biased toward a particular ideology, but only biased toward what content users might engage with. If a user primarily follows accounts on the political left, it’s likely that person will see inserted content from other accounts on the left. The same goes for people who follow accounts on the political right.

In the case of this reporter, who follows accounts on both the right and left, Twitter has displayed tweets from individuals on both sides of the political spectrum. On the right, users displayed to this reporter included Republicans like Tom Cotton, Lindsey Graham, Rick Scott, Matt Gaetz, Jim Jordan and Ronna McDaniel. On the left, users displayed to this reporter included Democrats like Nancy Pelosi, Beto O’Rourke, television pundit Lawrence O’Donnell, Chris Murphy and author Stephen King.

However, the feature also surfaced tweets from individuals further to the fringes of American politics — personalities who regularly fill their Twitter feeds with personal attacks, inflammatory political rhetoric and conspiracy theories. Such users displayed to this reporter included: James Woods, the actor with a history of incendiary political rhetoric who promotes conspiratorial views; Jeanine Pirro, the Fox News host who was recently suspended by the network for Islamophobic comments; Candace Owens, the Turning Point USA communications director who had to clarify controversial comments about Adolf Hitler; Bill Mitchell, the Twitter personality who peddles conspiracy theories and inflammatory political rhetoric; Jack Posobiec, the One America News Network host who has a history peddling conspiracy theories; “Diamond and Silk,” the pro-Trump social media duo who employ inflammatory political rhetoric and pushed false claims about Facebook; and others.

For instance, a December 22 tweet from the actor Woods called Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, the “Godmother of ISIS.” In a January 28 tweet, he suggested the “feminist movement” was attempting to “destroy masculinity in boys” through “prescription pharmaceuticals.”

In another instance, Twitter inserted a October 3 tweet into this reporter’s timeline from Mitchell calling Christine Blasey Ford “the Devil.” In other tweets inserted from Mitchell, he questioned how George Soros, the liberal philanthropic billionaire, was “not guilty of seditious conspiracy against the United States” and asked, “Can you imagine if we threw Soros in prison and seized his assets as an enemy of the United States tomorrow? What would the Democrats do?” In a series of tweets in November, Mitchell cast doubt on the 2018 midterm election, calling the Democrat House majority “FAKE” and “ILLEGITIMATE.” He falsely alleged that there was “MASSIVE VOTE FRAUD.”

Some of the tweets were also aimed at undermining Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian election interference, and the American justice system at large. While some of these tweets are a matter of opinion, it is surprising to see the platform amplify partisan tweets that were designed to undermine a serious federal investigation into election interference.

A December 22 tweet, for instance, inserted into this reporter’s timeline from Charlie Kirk, a right-wing personality and founder of Turning Point USA, described Mueller’s investigation as a “harassment operation.” Another tweet, this time from Pirro, featured a video of her December 15 opening monologue in which she asserted that “we are in a dark and dangerous place in America” because “politics is driving our system of justice, instead of lady justice being blind to politics.”

Twitter has also amplified partisan and incendiary immigration rhetoric.

Author King, who regularly posts anti-Trump tweets on his profile, said in December in the lead-up to the government shutdown, “F*** your wall,” and “F*** your vanity project.”

A November 25 tweet inserted into this reporter’s timeline from far-right social media personalities “Diamond and Silk” stated, “Democrats fight for the safety of Illegal Aliens but not one time have they fought for the safety of Americans.” A November 29 tweet from Owens said, “I’d pay big bucks to see white liberals who cry out about the unsuitable living conditions for caravan migrants, drink a glass of water from Flint Michigan. I wonder what their own bulls*** might taste like to them.” Other tweets on the topic of immigration reviewed by CNN Business show Twitter amplifying messages that contain misleading information.

It’s not clear how widespread the negative effects of this Twitter feature is, but the practice of inserting tweets into the timelines of users who do not follow the accounts that posted them hasn’t gone unnoticed. Some people have tweeted out their frustration.

“Dear Twitter, if you want me to see tweets of people I follow that I might have missed, that’s defensible,” tweeted Jonah Goldberg, a conservative author and editor at the National Review. “But please stop putting tweets from asshats I don’t follow in my feed. If I wanted to see their tweets, I’d follow them. You make me want to put out cigarettes in my hand.”

“Dear @jack at @Twitter please stop adding tweets to my feed from people I don’t follow just because people I do follow also follow the MAGA crowd,” tweeted Canadian journalist Michael Hainsworth. “The world already has too much ‘wake up sheeple’ and far-right rage thanks to your platform, I don’t need it unsolicited, thanks.”

“People I don’t follow but are in my newsfeed: @charliekirk11 @RealCandaceO and @RealJamesWoods. Why Twitter why?” asked Reynolds Hutchins, a web producer for The Washington Examiner.

There is some irony to the amplification of these right-wing voices. Trump and other prominent Republicans have long accused Twitter of “shadow banning” users with conservative viewpoints, an accusation Twitter has strongly denied. In reality, not only is Twitter not “shadow banning” these right-wing personalities for their political viewpoints, the platform’s algorithm is actually amplifying some of their tweets to audiences who do not even follow their accounts.

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How Twitter’s algorithm is amplifying extreme political rhetoric