Last week, a report from BuzzFeed claimed that Twitter was about to implement an algorithmic news feed, a departure from the chronologically-ordered tweets which users have grown accustomed to, and by which the platform is defined.
CEO Jack Dorsey sought to calm users by saying they had no plans to implement the change this week, but reports from other tech publications indicate Twitter has already completed tests of the new feature. And indeed the company launched a feature along these lines this week.
For conservatives, this is bad news. If our feeds are ordered by algorithm, this effectively means that Twitter, rather than users, decides which tweets should be seen. Tweets that the algorithm decides are “uninteresting” to users might not be seen at all. Needless to say, I am already receiving DMs from fans claiming that my tweets are not showing up in their feeds.
As the #RIPTwitter user revolt demonstrated, an algorithmic timeline is not exactly in demand with Twitter’s core fans. For a company already suffering from user growth problems and taking a battering at the stock market, why would they seek to implement such a massively unpopular change?
One potential reason is that more top-down control over content gives Twitter more to offer advertisers — and politicians. In a USA Today article two weeks ago, comments from a senior Twitter employee showed that the company is eager to demonstrate its influence over politics.
“Traditional predictors of success apply no longer,” said Adam Sharp of Twitter. “Money raised and spent, endorsements received, years-old field infrastructure are now all secondary to the ability to deliver a compelling message directly to the voter base. We are in a new age of retail politics, where the one-to-one intimacy and authenticity of the handshake and ask for a vote can be executed at scale as candidates turn to Twitter and other tools to bypass the wholesale channels of the last half-century of campaign craft.”
So who is Adam Sharp? He’s the head of news, government and elections at Twitter, and one of the company’s longest-serving employees. His bio for a sponsored speech he gave for the Online News Association in 2015 reads:
Called “the human embodiment of Twitter” by the New York Times, Sharp joined the company in November 2010 as its first hire in Washington, DC. Now based in New York, he is the longest-serving member of Twitter’s global media partnerships team.
But that’s not all. The bio goes on to say that Sharp also served as the Deputy Chief of Staff for a Democrat senator in Louisiana in 2008, and that he is also a Term Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Exactly the sort of neutral, non-partisan guy you’d want curating the world’s political discourse… right?
With an algorithm, Twitter could easily control the content users receive on a politically partisan basis. For a modern social media company like Twitter, nestled in the ultra-progressive San Francisco Bay Area, it wouldn’t be unprecedented, would it?
Facebook is openly stamping out reasonable, mainstream anti-immigration sentiment on its platform, in cahoots with the German government, and Twitter has a history of targeting populist conservatives. We shouldn’t assume that Twitter will tell us what they’re doing, either. Transparency is not the company’s strong suit — to put it mildly.
We’re just now getting into the thick of the presidential elections, and “establishment” candidates of both parties – Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, respectively — have not had an easy time on social media. The left wing of millennial internet culture, veterans of countless hashtag campaigns, is firmly in Sanders’ camp.
Meanwhile, web-savvy Trump supporters pour forth from the depths of 4chan, 8chan, and “Twitterchan,” armed to the teeth with cutting-edge pepes and viciously waspish commentary. A social media ecosystem in which ordinary users determine the popularity of posts is no friend to the establishment.
But a social media of algorithms, controlled from the top down by achingly PC Silicon Valley companies, just might be.
In an article on Buzzfeed from just two weeks ago titled, “Black Lives Matter Leaders Are Reaching Out To Silicon Valley, And It’s Paying Off”, it says Deray Mckesson is:
Something of a regular at the New York offices of Medium, has strong relationships with executives at Slack and Twitter, and has a fledgling relationship with top heads at Facebook.
Mckesson’s friendliness with Twitter sure paid off. At his behest, Twitter banned conservative journalist Chuck Johnson for saying he wanted to “take out” the Black Lives Matter activist. Johnson was of course speaking metaphorically about an upcoming exposé on Mckesson.
But Twitter pounced on the chance to permanently ban a mortal enemy of one of their favourite activists. It accepted Mckesson’s dubious contention that Johnson’s words constituted a threat of violence — thus a conservative journalist was effectively banned from Twitter for using a metaphor.
There have even been reports of Twitter censoring embarrassing news stories from popular progressive hashtags, such as #BlackLivesMatter. A City Councilwoman who used Twitter to dox opponents of the movement was let off with a slap on the wrist, where others would have been permanently banned.
None of this should be surprising, seeing as Twitter and Black Lives Matter have both publicly stated that they have a close relationship. Now that Mckesson is running for mayor in Baltimore, it seems almost certain that their “close personal relationship” will become an electoral one, too.
Twitter’s influence isn’t just confined to US politics, by the way. If the company was so inclined, it could affect elections worldwide. Indeed, Twitter has already started its electoral activity in developing nations such as the Philippines:
The Commission on Elections (Comelec) is collaborating with Twitter, an online social networking service for the May 2016 polls.
Comelec Chairman Andres Bautista expects the partnership to make the presidential debates more accessible to millions of Filipinos via the social media.
“We look forward to working with Twitter to make presidential debates more accessible to millions of Filipinos, and on a larger scale to increase voter participation and political transparency throughout the Philippine presidential elections,” Bautista told a press briefing.
As the Comelec’s partner, Jaitly said Twitter will be providing premium inside data and visualizations that help represent the pulse of the country, the pulse of viewers with respect to what is top of mind, with respect to audience during the debate.
Twitter wants to become the de facto, worldwide platform for politicians to reach the masses, usurping broadcast media. Unlike broadcast media, however, it’s currently difficult for Twitter to control the message.
If FOX wants to give Donald Trump a tough time, they’ll appoint Megyn Kelly to moderate their presidential debates. If MSNBC wants a liberal slant on the news, they’ll put Chris Matthews on the story. Twitter, where users control the flow of information, currently lacks that ability.
But an algorithmic timeline, coupled with the company’s horrifically politically biased support teams and terms of service, look set to change all that.
For political partisans, control over Twitter is the Holy Grail. Even uncontrolled, Twitter has proven formidable in its influence over elections. And, as a report from Voanews highlights, this influence is set to increase as the digital generation grows up.
Voters are increasingly turning to their smartphones to read political news and follow political figures, according to a 2014 Pew Research survey. Those numbers are highest among young voters, who value making personal connections with politicians.
“Without social media, you’re ignoring millennial voters,” said Chris Wilson, director of research and analytics for the Cruz campaign. “Sen. Cruz is someone who is very active on social media, he’s someone who is just as likely to be playing Candy Crush on his phone as reading the National Journal.”
Perry, the 27-year-old who runs the day-to-day operations of Cruz’s Twitter feed, agrees.
Twitter even has its own data analysis department which basically gives them their own polling center — one that operates in real time. Recode explains:
Twitter data anticipated Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s narrow Iowa caucus victory Monday over his billionaire rival for the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump.
On the eve of Monday’s caucuses, Twitter released information showing a shift in sentiment away from the brash presumptive front-runner to Cruz, who had assiduously built relationships in all 99 counties ahead of the voting.
Adam Sharp, Twitter’s head of news, government and elections, said the results don’t replace traditional polling “any more than satellite and radar will replace the thermometer.” But the Twitter conversation did reflect a change in the days following the final Des Moines Register poll Saturday that showed Trump reclaiming the lead.
“Those several days are a political eternity,” Sharp said. “What I think the Twitter conversation did in the last few days was lend an interesting perspective on the natural conversations these Iowans were having between those final polls and showing up to caucus.”
If Twitter is already polling in real time, there is no reason why it wouldn’t be able to tweak its algorithm in real time to manipulate elections by controlling what political messages people end up seeing.
For instance, it could instantly track when an undesirable candidate was starting to see growth, and then change the algorithm to nip it in the bud. And of course, they will be able to do this not only in the US, but worldwide.
Users are already convinced that Twitter curates trending hashtags. Is it such a leap to assume the company will do the same with its new, Facebook-like feeds?
Remember, it’s not just anti-establishment conservatives who should be worried. Sanders supporters, increasingly at odds with Black Lives Matter, and feminist activists favoured by Twitter, should also be concerned about which candidate Twitter might back.
But even for conservatives, Twitter might choose to manipulate feeds to benefit establishment candidates. It should be remembered that there’s no law stopping them from doing any of this, just as there’s no law stopping old media companies like MSNBC from having a political slant.
Unlike the old media, however, there is no conservative competitor to Twitter, and no realistic prospect of a genuinely open free speech platform. Mischief-makers, dissidents, libertarians and conservatives should all be worried.