Algorithm bias excluding significant amounts of qualitative information, at the expense of creative alternative contents, and influencing public opinion
I write this post to underline how processes of social discrimination are actually activated via the use of encrypted codes and obscure algorithms by Twitter and how it affects deeply the structure of the ecology of news to impact negatively the processes of news production and the formation of public opinions.
My interest for the processes of news production and sharing started with my doctoral researches on new ways of sharing information on social media with hashtag activism and the digital interactions and online affiliations of users in times of social and political crisis.
There are many reasons that led me to choose Twitter versus Facebook. Twitter was the most purist platform in social media or at least the one that was looking the more alike the IRCs or digital forums with its chrononological timeline of real time informations. Produced by multiple users, shared streams of news structured by organic hashtags were giving access to a diversity of view points and news sources.
Originally the low intervention and minimalist transparent architecture were based on subtle levels of external interventions from staff and programmers. Authoritative decisions regarding of the priority and focus of informations and news sources made through algorithms can produce a shift in the structure of the ownership of media production.
The move Twitter made after 2012, following its introduction in the american stock market and the call from investors for making it more lucrative as Twitter was not returning enough value, drove the owners to complexify the organic ecology in order to generate a business ROI at the expenses of the quality and of the integrity of the public conversation.
This politics has been a killer for the democratic processes involved in the production and selection of the best informations and sources possible for the public debate based on the intrisic value of the information. The use of obscure algorithms prioritizing some types of contents created asymetry with filters that suggested trendy topics and biased the evaluation of the qualitativeness and reliability of information.
The efforts that the company has made to raise profits led them to interfere more and more often with the producers’ choices and to undermine the potential for access and plurality of informations and sources.
The proliferative accumulation of social media bots, cyber-harassment patterns, malveillance and fake accounts from the dominant firms created poor conditions for the alternative news producers.
The profitability approach led to increased visibility of sources located in the close network of funders and investors with the highlight of specific topics and claims and with the subsequent concentration of resources and means for news production into their hands.
My researches were the first consequent work dedicated to the analysis of Twitter interpreting and mapping emergent practices of production and sharing of political informations so better to say, the body of literature existing was more than partial or inexistent.
To do so, I linked together several pieces of incomplete data, informations and expertises with the help of my own methodology of social network analysis mixing qualitative and quantitative data. The plurality of sources was crucial to guarantee the quality of the findings both in local and global contexts.
It is quite clear that if Twitter had been at that time the platform it is today biased in the processes of news production with the views of its conceptors, I couldn’t have produced anything else than an account on the many ways propaganda is being structured and disseminated online through the use of mass media.
But let’s be fair, my claims are not only directed at Twitter and concern the whole media market.
With the concentration of market and media powers, the digital worlds are not transposing our social practices. The news market ecology doesn’t reflect in any point the real networks of influence, the authenticity of informations or the structure of our social interactions. It became a distorted representation of our social realities and physical worlds.
I had the chance to catch the emergence of the Arab Spring movement, converging with the Quebeckers’ Spring I was studying, and also the intensification of hashtag activism and personal information produced online with photos and videos before AI, everywhere in the world like a blossoming spring.
It was the first ever global expression of a public conversation shared in real time on the internet and it was really emotioning assisting to the explosion of all the plural voices raising consciousness in a renewed form of media. That was magic.
At the time, Twitter was the place-to-be for researchers, librarians, alternative media and talented social justice activists who had better and faster access to primary sources, diversified contents of political and local information and unfiltered contents.
It was a space where things happened for building public debate, solidarity networks, civic friendship around common issues and social causes, discuss about politics and society, share rare knowledge and local informations, produce alternative ecologies and emergent markets, the space where the voiceless who couldn’t access traditional media and gatekeepers came. It became a giant open market.
It disrupted the traditional newsrooms and enabled the production and emergence of new ways of sharing informations (Debaveye, 2012). It is now consolidating the structure of media ownership with mass media firms as Comcast, Sky, Walt Disney, Fox… owned by multinationals.
There was the Arab Spring opposing dictatures, the Quebecker student strike Red Square against the scholarship fees, the Occupy movement to reclaim affordable housing, the protests in Spain and South America against authoritarian policies and austerity, that would later give birth to the massive engagement for the American elections (Obama, Trump…), the movement for women against violence (#WhyIstayed, #BringBackOurGirls, #Metoo, #MosqueMetoo), the #BlackLivesMatter movement, #PreyforParis, #netneutrality, so on).
And now hashtag activism is being diverted and soiled by political propagandists, extremist groups and hate speech campaigns, some of them paid by firms.
There was some critics made by the establishment of clicktivism, hacktivism or slacktivism as the people never meet offline but it was doing good. It has become the privileged media from the oppressed thanks to the plurality of access and voices.
Now that firms have laid hands on, it is all gone. Twitter INC. owns the design to the work of us, and shares it with market owners. And we need to be cautious that there are not transforming our tweets in financial transactions.
For a researcher, the platform is a privileged site for observing the forms of participation of multiple audiences in processes of news production and sharing. I wrote a consequent paper on how the information is processed through times and space and is remediated by Twitter users to enable minority groups to reach audience and visibility, based on the results of my PhD dissertation.
But I have also pointed, how as fewer sources control bigger shares of information, a small group of users is being given the authority of the leadership.
The algorithms perpetuate the persistence of the same old powers by influencing users with selecting global hashtags instead of alternative hashtags (Debaveye, 2012b) as the exigence of visibility created by the platform (publish or perish) pushes users to favorize global hashtags and common issues pulled by markets.
In this context, producing a counter-narrative that doesn’t reflect an auto-centered perspective or play the private interests of big corps has become very difficult today, and the regimes of visibility have muted to exclude perhaps 80% of good users’ contents.
In democratic processes, people would vote for contents or sources, but in the oligarchy of the code, the army of bots used for the amplification of the dominant narratives dismiss the potential of technologies for democracy and social change.
I also analyzed the configurations of power and influence (Debaveye, 2012b) : in concentrative markets, views that are not popular, politically convergent or contervening the views of central powers might possibly be blurred, monitored if not censured, without no one knowing.
End 2015-2016, Twitter INC. implemented an algorithm that allows users to see more tweets from the people they interact with and the most popular tweets from the followees – the people you follow (this, fine), but the algorithm also makes you see more tweets of what Twitter decides to be popular contents for you based on the number of sees, likes and retweets, just as Facebook.
What twitter decides for you means that people do not really decide of who to follow or what content to like or retweet, they are being said by the algorithms that suggest them to do. Some of my tweets became viral after they passed 10 retweets when others that were of much better quality but more controversial hardly were seen and never reached any audience.
Numbers decide of the quality and of the value of the information produced and contextual evaluation is neglected. As a result users from mass media biggest firms get extended visibility in the timeline and the integrity of news sources cannot be met.
It’s understandable that Twitter tries to improve readability giving the increasing amount of information being produced daily by users (or bots!) but there is an issue on the way algorithms are used to serve the private interests of funders and partners in a competitive market and we need to know and adress it.
Interventionist measures to control information mess with the authenticity of the users’ experience and might create hurt by exposing users to desinformations and manipulations.
Despite of being aware of the situation, Twitter Inc. didn’t take vigorous measures to prevent and repress the aggressive and illegal conducts of firms employing strategies as cyber-harassment and hacking on its platform to dominate the market.
My Twitter account is organic. I don’t mind talking about unconsensual subjects or taboos as sexual assault and abuses in academia and in tech communities back in 2012 and through 2018, police brutality under Harper in 2013, war tactics or corruptions employed in liberal politics against civilians back in 2013-2017. I have a low visibility. I have never felt much concern about visibility but better about integrity and authenticity.
But the conditions of work for small producers are hardly manageable. Most of the time, I cannot focus on my job as censure, harassment and cyber-attacks are taking over. I am not interested into contributing to rhetorics that merely aim at consolidating the legitimacy of existing powers and markets.
The highlighted tweets in the timeline be it randomized or by hashtag research are from American people located on the West Coast, i.e. from the same location than the very guys who are programming the machine, when they don’t represent a significant portion of the people I follow. And frankly, I don’t care about their views. My scientific and personal interests are not about tech insiders’ views.
By doing so, Twitter is not guaranteeing access to diversified sources of information for the audiences. The process of curation of news is being complexified and discourage people to look after authentical and plural sources for information, boosting fake news propagation and depriving users from the freedom of choice.
Social media firms enact democracy and citizenship more than they create the structures necessary to build democracy and citizen knowledge.
Concentration of media power make social media more vulnerable to scams and stealing of identities as some class of people steal already existing cultural contents, exploiting the merits of whose producing the original works and finally promote networks of crime and corruption in place of retributing the real ones.
The ones we see today in the #netneutrality protest, the ones who come from the margins and the minorities, not the beautifully marketized tribes portrayed in some demagogic campaigns, the ones of the ugly, the difform, the hurt, the betrayed, the disfigured, the ones who fight to reach ends every day, the ones who never found their way in polls, the ones of the invisible, in brief the 99%
To protest against that increasing amont of powers in the hands of a few that is threatening the future of the public conversation I have asked Twitter : « remove filters for 2018 » in order to reinitialize the platform the way I used to know, cherish and love and not in the best interests of the tech giants and media consortiums.
Now with the end of net neutrality in the U.S and the increasing power of media and tech firms oligarchy, we can fear that the acceleration of profits produce more censure of controversies, less symetry between users and a permanent damage of the fragile ecosystem of news and contents built through the years, at the perils of people’s lives.
I am talking about all the alternative media producers who used Twitter for criticizing abuses and ended up in jail, death sentenced or executed. I am talking about the women and individuals who bravely confronted public stigma to share their experiences. I am talking about the activists and leaders who were murdered in countries of war for exposing truths and defend democracy, press freedom and social justice. I am talking about the little Twitter itself that has lost his soul and is crying for his mamma.
The deregulation endangers the formation of diverse opinions for an informed public debate.
This is really saddening me too much. I hope for you Twitter that you get that without the composite users and the plural views that made it learn and grow, it is nothing else than a gadget in the hands of the capitalists of disaster, a kind of Wallmart of the information.
I have read in news that you ironically made it some days ago, for the first time since you were born, you made some positive results. And I wish I could celebrate the good news with you. Instead, I’m leaving you because I don’t know you anymore, I have no more words or dreams to share with you (edit 6 of september).
Maybe you will learn a bit more about the concept of civic friendship in the terms of Aristotle, as bridging people together in times of scarcity with love and trust, and not in the terms of arranging your 3 « best friends ».
Ce(tte) œuvre est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution – Pas d’Utilisation Commerciale – Partage dans les Mêmes Conditions 4.0 International.