Elon Musk is a habitual tweeter. The Tesla (TSLA) – Get Tesla Inc Report Chief Executive tweets at all hours, during the work day and late at night.
The billionaire’s wide ranging thought process on Twitter (TWTR) – Get Twitter, Inc. Report frequently jumps from his own pet projects to law enforcement to social media.
His recent tweets range from lending support to the Artemis III astronauts traveling to the moon aboard Musk’s SpaceX Starship Human Landing System to a meme mocking the Federal Bureau of Investigation and its spying capabilities to an opinion poll about microblogging site Twitter’s algorithm composition.
Musk asked his nearly 80 million followers if Twitter’s algorithm should be made open source. The poll received over 1.1 million votes and a majority of 82.7% of the users who responded agreed.
Twitter Co-Founder and Former Chief Executive Jack Dorsey was quick to come to the social media platform’s defense and retorted that this distinction is a “choice” open to everyone. The pun was probably intended.
Dorsey is now leading financial payments firm Block (SQ) – Get Block Inc Class A Report, formerly known as Square.
Why This Matters?
Twitter’s algorithm is what determines the many tweets users get to see on their timelines, the kind of tweets they’re likely to see, the people most likely to show up on their timeline based on their engagement and user activity on the platform.
“An algorithmic Home timeline displays a stream of Tweets from accounts you have chosen to follow on Twitter, as well as recommendations of other content we think you might be interested in based on accounts you interact with frequently, Tweets you engage with, and more,” Twitter says in a blog post.
Twitter’s algorithm uses machine learning capabilities to sort content based on different ranking signals. Twitter algorithms also power Twitter trends, topics, and recommendations, which appear in the notifications tab.
In 2016, Twitter gave users a choice between an algorithmically ordered Twitter timeline or viewing latest tweets.
An open source Twitter algorithm could potentially be used, modified and shared by the public making it more transparent and encouraging healthy competition.
But there is a flipside too.
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“Open-source software has been an incredible democratizing and innovative force for the digital world. Its widespread adoption, however, means that security issues can have real-world consequences when a huge proportion of the most popular apps and websites depend on it,” wrote Former Google (GOOGL) – Get Alphabet Inc. Class A Report Chief Executive Eric Schmidt and Schmidt Futures Research Lead Frank Long in a co-authored piece in The Wall Street Journal.
“This isn’t only an issue for technology companies and their users. It is also an issue of national security. The prevalence of open source means its security is critical to our infrastructure, putting much of the internet and millions of citizens at risk of attack,” Schmidt and Long added.
Why is the Twitter Algorithm Controversial?
Social media companies have long been criticized for increasing polarization, extremist rhetoric, echo chambers, misinformation and online radicalization through their algorithms.
They’ve also come under routine political attacks from Republicans claiming they are biased. In 2018, Twitter came under congressional scrutiny over alleged bias in the United States.
“There is to a degree some politicization of what does and does not go into Twitter’s algorithm,” former Pennsylvania Congressman Ryan Costello, a Republican, argued at the time. “The content judgement calls when certain tweets are requested to be removed. There are some constitutional questions around what right does a company have to remove content based purely on political slant,” he told Bloomberg in an interview.
Former President Trump, who made tweeting a centerpiece of his days in office, repeatedly complained about bias. Trump was eventually kicked off Twitter in the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection, “due to the risk of further incitement to violence.” He has since attempted, with limited success, to set up rival social media platforms that closely mimic Twitter’s functions.
Dorsey has maintained that Twitter’s policies operate on impartiality and encourage transparency.
Beyond politics, in 2020, Twitter’s image algorithm has been criticized for focusing on white faces over darker ones. Twitter said that its tests haven’t shown any racial or gender bias, though it announced features giving more users more control over images because ”we recognize that the way we automatically crop photos means there is a potential for harm.”
What is Open Source?
The term open source refers to something people can modify and share because its design is publicly accessible.
Twitter has been a supporter of the open source community for developers it works with. The company has also funded talent to encourage a system that can build an “open and decentralized standard for social media.”
Dorsey also publicly spoke about the issue of recommendation algorithms in a series of tweets in 2019.
He added that both Square and Twitter were working to find a democratic standard to access and contribute to a much larger corpus of public conversation.
Experts have in the past maintained that Dorsey has been the first to point to gaps and areas that Twitter needs to work on.