Why Tesla’s Elon Musk wants to make Twitter’s algorithm ‘open source’

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Elon Musk says his hostile takeover bid on Twitter is about free speech.

Tesla’s chief executive has tweeted several polls to his roughly 80 million Twitter followers on the subject, and he told a conference call this week that he thinks the social media company is a public square that can promote world peace, as long as there is little police.

A key part of his pitch: If he succeeds in his $43 billion takeover, he wants to release the computer code that determines what people see on Twitter to ensure the platform is fair. The algorithm determines the priority in which tweets are delivered to users, either expanding or limiting the number of millions of people who see them. Specifically, he said he wanted to make the algorithm that recommends whether a tweet is promoted or demoted “open source,” or available for the public to view and improve. This, he said, will help prevent “behind-the-scenes manipulation”.

If someone’s tweets are “high or low, that action should remain apparent,” he said during a live broadcast of a TED talk on Thursday.

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But Musk’s proposal likely represents a gross simplification of how it would work to make that data public, according to researchers who study recommendation algorithms. As social media companies have grown, the software that drives their recommendation engines has become so sprawling and complex that analyzing them would require access to such an immense firehose of data. that most people wouldn’t even have access to a computer powerful enough to analyze it. The algorithms of Twitter, Facebook and other social networks process billions of pieces of content and use a myriad of data points to determine a ranking, from the popularity of a post to the person who posted it.

“The algorithm is not a thing,” said Nick Seaver, assistant professor of anthropology at Tufts, who studies the algorithms that drive recommendation engines. The systems are so complex, he says, that tech companies themselves often struggle to figure out why their software showed a user one message over another.

“People inside Twitter also want to understand how their algorithm works,” he said.

Twitter, Facebook and Musk did not respond to requests for comment.

The opacity of the algorithms that power what people see on social media sites has long fascinated conservatives, in particular, who have alleged without proof that the platforms are biased against them. Musk’s attempts to gain influence on Twitter this week have sparked celebrations on the right, as some believe he may be trying to reduce scrutiny of misinformation and restore former President Donald Trump to the platform. .

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Efforts have been made to make algorithms more transparent through regulation. Last year, several bills were introduced or reintroduced in Congress that explicitly focused on software that decides what people see on social media platforms. Efforts are also progressing to regulate artificial intelligence and algorithms globally.

When social networks such as Facebook and Twitter were brand new, there wasn’t enough content to justify the need for a complex algorithm, which is basically a set of rules similar to a mathematical equation that helps analyze content and determine what is most relevant to an individual user.

But as hundreds of millions of users began joining and posting billions of pieces of content, companies began writing software that could track what users were most likely to click on and then sort their feeds by result.

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Now, companies such as Facebook, video app TikTok, and Twitter all use some form of algorithm to determine what to show users. And that means that not all users of a social network see the same thing. People obsessed with the outdoors might see posts about the best summer camping spots, while a basketball fan might be bombarded with posts about the NBA playoffs.

Facebook and Twitter initially had timeline feeds, and both have recently faced pressure to bring them back as the default, especially amid criticism that their ranking systems help promote the spread of misinformation.

The complex math that most companies use is often referred to as “machine learning”, which is basically a very sophisticated form of pattern recognition. A computer program cannot tell whether a particular tweet is funny, interesting, or valuable. But if it looks at millions of tweets and a bunch of factors, like who liked it, shared it, and retweeted it, it can start predicting which tweets are likely to get attention.

Even if Twitter made its secret formula public, including the math it uses to “train” its machine learning algorithms, an outsider looking at it wouldn’t be able to draw any meaningful conclusions, says Michael Ekstrand , assistant professor of computer science at Boise State who researches recommendation engines. A stranger would also need to see the underlying data used to “train” these algorithms – the billions of bits of data showing who watched, liked or shared tweets, among many other possible factors.

Publishing the data would raise serious privacy concerns, experts said.

“The algorithm is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Robin Burke, a professor of information science at the University of Colorado at Boulder and a researcher specializing in recommendation algorithms. “The rest of the iceberg is all this data that Twitter has,” he said, most of which cannot be made public.

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Musk should be familiar with the complicated nature of algorithms, experts said. Tesla, a company he runs, uses machine learning algorithms to develop self-driving technology. This company is so massive that Tesla is building its own supercomputer and custom semiconductors to process all the data.

There are other ways to improve transparency that are more practical, the experts said, some of which Twitter is already doing. Some critics have called on social media companies to simplify their algorithms so that when there are issues, like perceived bias towards specific groups of people, they can be more easily addressed. Others called for independent audits within companies.

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Twitter has an in-house research team called Machine Learning Ethics, Transparency and Accountability that examines potential biases in its algorithms. He has published researchfor example, on whether the algorithms that automatically crop profile photos contained unintended bias.

One idea that has been floated is to separate Twitter into several different algorithms. Twitter could select business partners who would have access to the data and develop algorithms tailored to certain audiences.

Nathan Baschez, co-founder of Every, a tech-focused writers’ collective, supported in an article Friday that Twitter should allow outsiders to create their own algorithms tailored to specific interests. Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey responded to a tweet posted by Baschez, confirming that he floated the idea when he was the company’s chief executive before stepping down in December.

During congressional testimony in November 2020, Dorsey extensively suggested the idea. Algorithms “are responsible for showing us what we see or what we don’t see and there needs to be more choice in their use,” he said. Twitter is also funding Bluesky, which aims to decentralize social media in part to give people more choice in organizing their feeds.

A former Twitter employee who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private matters said the company had considered an “algorithm marketplace”, where users can choose different ways to view their feeds. But efforts to provide more transparency have proven difficult, the person said, because of how Twitter’s algorithms tie into other parts of the product. Opening it could reveal trade secrets and invite abuse, the person said.

Burke said the idea has merit but would require restructuring how Twitter works and how its data flows. “The fact that it’s hard to imagine this happening indicates the monolithic nature of these social media companies,” he said.

Release of Twitter’s code to the public could also have negative side effects. Those aiming to outsmart the system by spreading misinformation to influence an election could use the information to manipulate the platform, experts say.

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Even if Musk succeeds and the code is made public, critics are likely to remain skeptical as to whether this is the complete code and if anything could have been omitted. Essentially, the billionaire would ask Twitter users to trust him that there was no foul play behind the scenes, just as the company is today under its current ownership.

“It is probably impossible to eliminate all skepticism and cynicism. There will always be people who don’t believe what is being said,” Ekstrand said.

Rachel Lerman contributed reporting.


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