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Technology giants are undermining the democratic debate

This is the history of someone working in an editorial office. Political etiquette.

Twitter's algorithm often exposes false sources and messages rather than credible sources.

Twitter’s algorithm often exposes false sources and messages rather than credible sources.

Photo: Paula Munoz

In 2016 there were several political earthquakes. The Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump are very significant. At the center were large tech companies and social media. That year, for example, Facebook changed its algorithms. Instead of clickable headlines, serious political comments and fake news ended up at the top of the stream.

2016 was the year that Twitter launched its algorithm to deliver the most relevant content to users personally, as a recent study by the company describes how this algorithm works.

Between April and August 2020, the study followed more than 3,600 accounts of politicians from about thirty parties in seven major democracies: the United States, Japan, Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Spain and Germany. The American news landscape was also explored. What did you get then?

“The more inaccurate a page reveals facts, the more Twitter highlights it.”

Gustav Junti

The media in the United States generally received more exposure through the new algorithm, but the increase was greater for the right-wing media. Second, the algorithm reinforces the messages of right-wing politicians more than left-wing politicians in all countries except Germany. On a personal level, some politicians enjoy more than 400 percent more spread than others. What has this got to do with the democratic debate?

In recent years, social media and other sites have come under pressure to reduce access to the content of radical parties and the public. Spreading hatred, intimidation, extremism is not good. But Twitter’s approach drastically reduces radical parties in countries such as Germany, France and Spain, compared to moderate-centric parties. This is a democratic dilemma.

On the one hand, serious actors work with the argument of an institution that has been systematically swindled against them. On the other hand, it cuts holes in what many have put forward in the debate, and the edges have cut public discourse. That intelligence should have an impact on next year’s election campaign.

The worst thing, however, is that The Economist magazine finds itself in the background during a deep dive (13/11): the more a page spits out false facts, the more Twitter highlights it. The fact that credible sources are far less widely disseminated than the politicians and media on the right receive algorithmic support undermines public discourse.

The main argument of many large digital companies is that their products create value, benefit and better experiences for users. But since they do not provide insight into how the products are structured, it is not possible to answer whether this is true.

This is very serious and one should also look at the new openness of Twitter, which only shares what accounts were read in the study. Only generic forms are visible rather than actual content.

Private companies and sites have a powerful impact on democracy. This can be seen, for example, in the suspension of Donald Trump from many social media outlets after the Capitol attack, and the huge differences that politicians in large democracies experience on Twitter.

It is understandable that politicians do not want to leave digital arenas that provide direct contact with multiple voters. Usually it is difficult to give up personal power for a good cause. But why do so many in power use sites that undermine themselves, debate and democracy is one of the great dilemmas of our time.

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