Twitter has been under fire for its algorithm changes that allegedly amplify anger and animosity on the platform, according to a new study by Cornell University and UC Berkeley. The study, which was published on Friday, May 26, looked at tweets being shown to 806 users in February, comparing the content shown on Twitter’s “For You” personalized timelines, as well as the chronological newsfeed.
The researchers found that tweets being shown to people on their news feeds now particularly emphasize “emotional content” and, even if the original intent is not to provoke a reaction, the result made users react more than they might have done in the past. “We found that the algorithm amplifies tweets expressing stronger emotions (on four different dimensions: anger, happiness, sadness, and anxiety), especially those with anger. Readers also have increased emotional responses after reading tweets from the algorithm, and particularly experience more anger,” the authors concluded.
The study also found that the algorithms show more political tweets that exhibit greater partisanship and out-group animosity, and make users perceive their political in-group more positively and the out-group more negatively. “However, exposure to these algorithm-selected tweets results in users perceiving their political in-group more positively and the political out-group more negatively, potentially contributing to greater affective polarisation,” the researchers wrote.
The researchers argued that this could contribute to greater affective polarization in society, and that understanding the impact of the machine-learning algorithms that filter and curate content is crucial. “As social media continues to have a significant influence on public opinion, understanding the impact of the machine-learning algorithms that filter and curate content is crucial,” they said.
The algorithm changes are attributed to Elon Musk, who took over Twitter as its CEO in January 2022. Musk has been vocal about his vision for the social network, which includes making it more transparent and less prone to manipulation. Last week, Twitter posted part of its algorithm for its “For You” page for anyone to see, and published a blog post from its engineering team explaining how the recommendation system broadly works. The company hailed the move as the first step toward a “new era of transparency”.
However, researchers said the code has significant limitations and is missing context that would fully explain why users do or don’t see any given tweet. They also said that Twitter still hasn’t provided a look into the larger AI models that work beneath the surface, nor the data they are trained on.
Musk’s takeover of Twitter has been controversial and tumultuous, as he has clashed with former CEO Jack Dorsey over the direction of the company. He has also faced criticism for his unconventional approach to media inquiries, which involves sending a single poop emoji to reporters who email him for comment.
Twitter’s algorithm changes have raised questions about the ethical and social implications of using machine learning to shape public discourse. While Musk claims to be making Twitter more transparent and trustworthy, some experts warn that he might be doing more harm than good by fueling anger and polarization on the platform.
– Elon Musk’s Twitter algorithm changes are ‘amplifying anger and animosity’, say researchers, Yahoo Style UK, May 30, 2023
– Posting the Twitter algorithm isn’t actually transparency – The Atlantic, The Atlantic, April 5, 2023
– Musk and Dorsey Argue Over ‘Manipulative’ Twitter Algorithms, Business Insider, May 15, 2022
– Twitter data appears to support claims new algorithm inflated reach of Elon Musk’s tweets, Australian researcher says, The Guardian, February 16, 2023