Twitter boss Jack Dorsey admits algorithms ‘unfairly filtered’ 600,000 accounts

Twitter’s systems unfairly filtered 600,000 accounts including some belonging to members of Congress, chief executive Jack Dorsey has admitted.

The shocking admission came during Dorsey’s opening statement on Wednesday to the US House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is looking into the social network’s algorithms and content monitoring.

According to the CEO, the company’s algorithms were to blame for hiding some members from its auto-complete search and latest results.

Dorsey said the algorithms’ decisions were based partially on ‘the behaviour of people following these accounts’ – but the firm has since done away with the method after deciding it ‘wasn’t fair.’ 

‘In the spirit of accountability and transparency: recently we failed our intended impartiality,’ Mr Dorsey said.

‘Our algorithms were unfairly filtering 600,000 accounts, including some members of Congress, from our search auto-complete and latest results. We fixed it. But how did it happen?’

However, Mr Dorsey did not provide specific numbers for the Republican Congress members versus Democratic Congress members that were filtered out by the process.

‘Looking at the data, we analysed tweets sent by all members of the House and Senate, and found no statistically significant difference between the number of times a tweet by a Democrat is viewed versus a Republican, even after our ranking and filtering of tweets has been applied,’ he said.

‘Our technology was using a decision-making criteria that considers the behaviour of people following these accounts.’

‘We decided that wasn’t fair, and corrected. We’ll always improve our technology and algorithms to drive healthier usage, and measure the impartiality of outcomes,’ Dorsey said during the hearing.

The announcement comes after several Republicans, including President Donald Trump, accused Twitter of shadow-banning conservative voices – an act where someone’s visibility to the public is reduced – which Twitter has denied.

‘Social media is totally discriminating against Republican/Conservative voices,’ Mr Trump previously said on Twitter.

TWITTER CEO JACK DORSEY’S FULL OPENING STATEMENT

I want to start by making something clear: we don’t consider political viewpoints, perspectives, or party affiliation in any of our policies or enforcement decisions. Period. Impartiality is our guiding principle. Let me explain why.

We believe many people use Twitter as a digital public square. They gather from all around the world to see what’s happening, and have a conversation about what they see.

Twitter cannot rightly serve as a public square if it’s constructed around the personal opinions of its makers. We believe a key driver of a thriving public square is the fundamental human right of freedom of opinion and expression.

Our early and strong defense of open and free exchange has enabled Twitter to be THE platform for activists, marginalized communities, whistleblowers, journalists, governments and the most influential people around the world. Twitter will always default to open and free exchange.

A default to free expression left unchecked can generate risks and dangers for people. It’s important Twitter distinguishes between people’s opinions and behaviors, and disarms behaviour intending to silence another person, or adversely interfere with their universal human rights.

We build our policies and rules with a principle of impartiality: objective criteria, rather than on the basis of bias, prejudice, or preferring the benefit to one person over another for improper reasons. If we learn we failed to create impartial outcomes, we work hard to fix.

In the spirit of accountability and transparency: recently we failed our intended impartiality. Our algorithms were unfairly filtering 600,000 accounts, including some members of Congress, from our search auto-complete and latest results. We fixed it. But how did it happen?

Our technology was using a decision making criteria that considers the behaviors of people following these accounts. We decided that wasn’t fair and corrected. We’ll always improve our technology and algorithms to drive healthier usage, and measure the impartiality of outcomes.

Bias in algorithms is an important topic. Our responsibility is to understand, measure, and reduce accidental bias due to factors such as the quality of the data used to train our algorithms. This is an extremely complex challenge facing everyone applying artificial intelligence.

For our part, machine learning teams at Twitter are experimenting with these techniques and developing roadmaps to ensure present and future machine learning models uphold a high standard when it comes to algorithmic fairness. It’s an important step towards ensuring impartiality.

Looking at the data, we analyzed tweets sent by all members of the House and Senate, and found no statistically significant difference between the number of times a tweet by a Democrat is viewed versus a Republican, even after our ranking and filtering of tweets has been applied.

Also, there’s a distinction we need to make clear. When people follow you, you’ve earned that audience. And we have a responsibility to make sure they can see your tweets. We do not have a responsibility, nor you a right, to amplify your tweets to audiences that don’t follow you.

What our algorithms decide to show in shared spaces, like search results, is based on thousands of signals that constantly learn and evolve over time. Some of those signals are engagement, some are the number of abuse reports. We balance all of these to prevent gaming in our system.

We acknowledge the growing concern people have of the power held by companies like Twitter. We believe it’s dangerous to ask Twitter to regulate opinions or be the arbiter of truth. We’d rather be judged by the impartiality of outcomes, and criticized when we fail this principle.

In closing, when I think of our work, I think of my mom and dad in St Louis, a Democrat and a Republican. We had lots of frustrating and heated debates, but looking back, I appreciate I was able to hear and challenge different perspectives. And I appreciate I felt safe to do so.

We believe Twitter helps people connect to something bigger than themselves, shows all the amazing things happening in the world, and all the things we need to acknowledge and address. We’re constantly learning how to make it freer and healthier for all to participate. Thank you

‘Speaking loudly and clearly for the Trump administration, we won’t let that happen.

‘They are closing down the opinions of many people on the RIGHT, while at the same time doing nothing to others…’

Earlier on Wednesday, Mr Dorsey stood alongside Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, to give evidence to the US senate intelligence committee about foreign use of social networks to influence politics.

In evidence released before that hearing, Mr Dorsey said Twitter does not ‘shadow-ban anyone based on political ideology’.

Ms Sandberg said Facebook is working with outside experts in dealing with security concerns, adding: ‘We are more determined than our opponents and we will keep fighting.’

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