Slate takes an interesting deep dive into Twitter’s ranking algorithm, one that works to ensure that users see more tweets of the sort they “want” to see at the top at the expense of the kind they would not interact with. And it begs a question: why, exactly, are such sorted timelines more favored by users than a traditional non-sorted, chronological social media feed?
Twitter’s system is in the same vein as Facebook’s algorithm that has infamously turned that site into a honeycomb, where people never see or hear anything outside of their own little confirmation-biased lacunae. For instance, post your support of Trump on Zuckerberg’s site, and his machines will see to it that you will never be challenged by news that makes Trump look bad again. Trump-Putin scandal heating up again? The Trumpified Facebook user will only know about it by what sources like Breitbart tell them.
Twitter’s leadership, to its credit, is very conscious of what happened to their larger competitor and is trying to avoid the same pitfalls. But as Slate writer Will Oremus himself makes clear, any algorithm that favors content that users like, reply to, or repost/retweet, must therefore reinforce the echo chamber. It’s axiomatic. There is simply no way around it:
“On the other hand, the commentary it shows me about Trump’s tweets—and about politics in general—almost always comes from the left. No doubt that’s largely a function of the people I’ve chosen to follow: Most of them are liberal. Yet I’ve also taken care over the years to follow a number of pundits whose politics I disagree with… I rarely favorite or rebroadcast their tweets, or even click their links. But I do read them, and on the whole I find them indispensable.
Interestingly, Twitter’s timeline algorithm seems not to have picked up on this. For whatever reason, conservatives’ tweets virtually never seem to crack my ranked timeline or my ICYMI box.”
Even though unlike most people, Oremus goes out of his way to follow people he disagrees with, the algorithm still disfavors their tweets. Why? Because Oremus rarely likes, retweets, or replies to conservatives on Twitter, as opposed to the liberals who share his views. Because he mainly interacts with liberal tweets, Twitter will then show him more liberal tweets, and the echo chamber is born. Same thing happens with conservatives, who engage far more with fellow conservatives than they do the other side; their timelines inevitably become just as one-dimensional. It doesn’t matter how much Jack Dorsey tries to avoid turning his platform into Facebook — any such “more of the same” algorithm is playing by Facebook’s rules. Any such algorithm must wind up preaching to the choir, only playing the tunes they’re already humming.
And that’s exactly what people want.
People want the stories that appear to confirm what they already believe. They want to actively avoid the stories that challenge these beliefs. And not just in politics, either. How many Red Sox fans actively follow Yankees fansites?
It’s all tribal horseshit. Being liberal is more than just believing in diversity and labor rights. It’s about identifying with the liberal team. Most Trumpkins don’t go Trumpkin because they like the wall or the immigration ban. They go Trumpkin because they hate the liberal tribe. And he’s the biggest tribal warlord around who’s the avowed enemy of liberals. Who cares what his actual policy positions are? He could perform abortions in the White House, as Ann Coulter once suggested — it’s all good, as long as he skewers a few brown people or “libtards” in the process.
And because we are tribal animals, all news is propaganda. All of it. If it favors our clan, it’s gospel we’ll wolf up; if it challenges our side, we’ll run away yelling “FAKE NEWS!” because actual truth is less important measure of truth than whether it benefits our cause. We all become lawyers, pounding the table with any evidence, no matter how thin, in support of our case, and discrediting anything from the opposition. Even weather news gets filtered — reports about the unnaturally warm February this year becomes fodder to be retweeted and reposted to social media to prove your green creds, or else shouted down as enemy propaganda.
Facebook and Twitter (eagerly for the former, grudgingly for the latter) have accepted this reality of human nature, and are playing to it to grab more eyeballs and generate more clicks. This might be more dangerous for the latter’s pretensions of being a news source, but what can Jack Dorsey do about our tribal, orangutan diencephalons? Even if there were no sorting algorithms whatsoever, people’s Twitter feeds would still get slanted based just on who they follow. Oremus might go out of his way to follow conservatives that challenge his entrenched worldviews, but very few of his fellow progressives can claim likewise.
And hey, these ranking systems only get put in because they work. It’s what the consumer wants. And eventually, Dorsey has to listen more to his investors complaining about their flatlined stock than to idealists who still cling to outdated, ’90s fantasies of an “information superhighway” unpolluted by bias, propaganda or disinformation. Tweet about the Trumpkins’ echo chamber all you want — nobody outside your own will see it.