Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Death By Algorithm

According to a story from Vice, Twitter has become more active in "shadow banning" Republicans--that is: reducing their electronic reach by, for example, not propagating tweets to other's feeds (when they ordinarily would be) or having their accounts show up in search results. This is a "shadow ban" because, in theory, the user does not know they have been actioned--they just go on their merry way (but with less interaction / impact).

Is this happening? Well, yes--according to a May 15th post twitter is using a number of tools--including algorithms to try to reduce "abuse reports." According to the Vice story, some prominent republicans have been excised from search lists while their Democratic counterparts have not. Why?

Asked why only conservative Republicans appear to be affected and not liberal Democrats, the spokesperson wrote: “I'd emphasize that our technology is based on account *behavior* not the content of Tweets.”
That is: the R-tweets were, algorithmically, more trollish (or "negative," however Twitter defines that) than the D-tweets . . . according to 'science.' We don't know the specifics of the tests so we can't really be sure what the science is. We also don't really know when someone has been shadow-banned since they don't publicize it. A NOTE: Everyone thinks they've been shadow-banned.

On Facebook we see something similar: Facebook wants to fight fakenews--but they allow InfoWars to keep on truckin' despite claiming that the Sandy Hook shooting was a hoax (and other not-so-good but similar nonsense). Sure: some groups get banned. Some don't--but on the whole, Facebook's attempts are spotty and inconsistent at best--or cynically designed to clamp down on some bullshit--but not the especially monetizing bullshit. Maybe.

Could This Be True (That R's Are Worse?)

Twitter is, presumably, doing this in a smart way--that is, if Twitter does not have the very best people in the world working on this, at least they should have the second best. That said, we do not know precisely what they are aiming for. The Omnivore can make a few guesses though:

  • Foreign influence. Twitter is likely alert and sensitive to the problem of foreign (Russian, other) influence. They want to avoid regulation and that's one major threat to it. If we believe the Hamilton 68 tracking (showing what bots associated with Russia are amplifying on Twitter) then it makes sense that Republican feeds would more-likely line up with foreign influencers (since according to Hamilton 68, Russia is mostly interested in amplifying Republican themes). This could asymmetrically hurt Republicans.
  • Fake News. Facebook has more of a problem with fake news than Twitter does--but it's still top of mind. As the Republican news ecosystem is more infected (infested?) with Fake news than the Democratic one, it would make sense that if the algorithm is flagging fake news propagation as a negative that R's would get hit more.
  • Conspiracy Theory. Again, R's lead here. If the algorithm is tracking theories like QAnon (or its little brother #pizzagate), the assassination of Seth Rich, and so on--again, the results could be asymmetric. This isn't to say that democrats don't have / tweet conspiracy theories--but probably not at the same magnitude and in the same amounts.
  • Racism. Although Republicans will strongly protest, The Omnivore thinks the numbers are in and it's pretty clear that an account tweeting racial animus towards minorities is more likely to be R-leaning than not. Now, this can well go the other way (minorities tweeting hate-speech at white people)--or vice versa, SJWs tweeting #allMenSuck or whatever. If Twitter weighs these equally would it be a wash? The Omnivore doesn't know--but The Omnivore suspects that (a) Twitter would algorithmically privilege minority protection over majority and (b) might well privilege protecting women on its platform over men. Is that fair? Up to you--but ask your mom whether or not life is fair. She'll tell you.
This is all to say that just as there are real, significant differences between the genders, there may also be real, significant mathematical differences between the partisan tweeters. This should factor in to anyone's assessment.

What Does The Omnivore Think?

We have been treated to a slew of stories about how hard young Trumpers have it on the dating scene. The stories show the unfairness that these people have in finding a date as so many profiles say "if you're MAGA, get lost!"

In this case there is no algorithm at work--and no (specific) community standard in play--it is just the aggregate behavior of multiple users that creates a community dynamic where a Trumper is 'discriminated' against. A Trump-supporter might, for example, point out that a person who [ does something objectionable ] can find a date while they [ who are squeaky clean otherwise ] cannot.

If the "can't find a date" rule was enforced by Tindr, the discrimination would, The Omnivore says, appear "quite clearly" as unfair.

However, the fact is that on Tinder the "can't find a date" effect (which is analogous to Shadowbanning in our metaphor) is enforced by many individuals so it's harder to accuse the company of doing anything.

But, is it any less wrong? If Twitter takes control of their environment to limit disruption and negative interaction and has a reasonable methodology for it, is that good stewardship? The problem, of course, is that Twitter can't publish its algorithm because then people with a vested interest in circumventing it could get around it--but if Twitter has a view of what a healthy environment looks like--and GOP people are harming that, what are they to do? Throw up their hands and say "it hurts the environment--but, hey, it is fair?"

The Omnivore thinks this is a sticky situation--Twitter is a public forum for important speech. It is also a private company. Users may have moral cause to ask for transparency ("How can I follow the law if I cannot be told it?") but they don't have a legal cause for it--and the presence of people trying to undermine the rules makes keeping them secret a practical position for Twitter to take.

At this point, there aren't easy answers--but The Omnivore thinks that if you think you got shadowbanned there was probably a decent reason for it.


  1. I'm a long time lurker, but I just wanted to let you know you have some wonderfully thoughtful analysis and as a result this is my favourite political blog on the internet.

    1. I am thrilled to hear this--even if I have no idea who you are. I will note that after thinking about this overnight I re-wrote a lot of it. So if you get this, check it out and see if you still want it posted. -- The Omnivore

  2. The way to open up more space in the media for new voices would be to repeal the 1996 telecommunications act, which affected everything from news media to the content of music.

    I am a very long resident of the internet and have seen a lot of message boards get swallowed up by the organized right-wing. The right is very comfortable with working the refs, it has nothing to do with being impartial.

    The right-wing plea for fairness instead goes like this. First they complain they're being persecuted, which boils down to moderators not letting them be abusive and hateful. They find some incident to rally around, and use it demand some role in running the website. And once they get that foothold, they appoint all their friends as moderators, and now your website is a white supremacy newsletter. Incidentally, Twitter already allows everyone to report users, which they have taken to doing collectively to remove voices they disagree with. Some impartiality.

    Here's an example of some of the boards set up on Reddit with this tactic: /r/White_Pride, /r/WhiteNationalism, /r/WhiteRights, /r/racism_immigration. Others are more careful to leave out their agenda and instead call it something like /r/New_Right.

    One of their recent successes at working the refs was when the ADL agreed to stop using the "racist" to describe white nationalist militias, at the request of the Republican party. They have softened it to "extremist." (The Hill 07/20/17 GOP Senate candidate attacks Anti-Defamation League for ‘witchhunt' on far right).

    David Roberts at Vox summarizes that "what’s happening in the US today is not a contest of governing philosophies. Trump doesn’t have one, and his administration barely tries to pretend it does. It’s not a philosophy or a plan that won — it was a team, a tribe. They are living it up, rewarding their friends and ratfucking everything the other team did before them." (Vox 3/15/2018 The real problem with the New York Times op-ed page: it’s not honest about US conservatism.)

    The rage directed at their tribal enemies is not safely contained to batting around ideas in virtual spaces.

    The non-profit voter registration group ACORN was targeted by a deceptively-edited hoax video set up by a conservative activist, and was ultimately defunded. Liberal writer Brad Friedman who covered the story warned that "If the mainstream corporate media won't acknowledge they were hoodwinked now --- and it wasn't just the NYTimes, it was also Baltimore Sun, CNN, New York Post, Washington City Paper, Philadelphia Daily News, NPR, Dallas Morning News and many more --- then they are enabling the fraud, and will fall for the same scams again in the future. In fact, they already have." (The Brad Blog 3/3/2010 O'Keefe, Giles, and Breitbart 'Buried the Truth' About Their ACORN 'Pimp' Hoax Video Tapes).

    In Maryland this year, a conservative shot up the newsroom at Capital Gazette Communications (LA Times 6/28/2018 Suspect in Maryland mass shooting had long-standing grievance with the newspaper that was attacked). "Court records and social media posts revealed that Ramos launched a lengthy and disturbing vendetta against the company after its daily newspaper, the Capital, ran a 2011 column describing how he was convicted of criminally harassing a woman who had turned down his advances." Nothing was done about his online harassment.

    In conclusion, when your political goal is a one party race hegemony, you pretend to be very victimized and interested in procedural rules. have to pretend to be very respectful of civil society to get there. We all kind of know this from history. But look at the president, we should be beyond pretending they're interested in conserving anything.