CategoriesSpeaking Freely with Todd McMurtry

Swaying with the Algorithm: How Twitter Allows Abuse and Manipulation

How reflective of your likes and interests is your Twitter feed? And who’s behind deciding what you see in the first place? The social media platform would say “you,” but a skeptical public isn’t so sure.

Todd McMurty

How reflective of your likes and interests is your Twitter feed? And who’s behind deciding what you see in the first place? The social media platform would say “you,” but a skeptical public isn’t so sure. Over the past several months, Twitter’s algorithm practices have been questioned by everyone from CNN to PBS to the Washington Post to Twitter users themselves. There is a strong argument that social media algorithms helped incite the recent post-election violence. Why? Because something, as they say, is rotten in the state of cyberspace. Hate-speech and harassment, disguised as paid content and “helpful” content suggestions that miss the mark are regular occurrences on the social media giant, and its algorithm is taking the blame.

What’s an algorithm, exactly?

As defined by Wikipedia, an algorithm “is a finite sequence of well-defined, computer-implementable instructions, typically to solve a class of problems or to perform a computation.” Sounds innocent enough, right? It is. It’s nothing more than an aspect of computer science.

However, Yale data scientist Elisa Celis (who studies fairness and diversity in artificial intelligence) explains that companies like YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and others refuse to reveal what’s exactly in their respective algorithm’s codes. Most, she says, seem to “revolve around one central tenet: maximizing user engagement­­—and, ultimately, revenue.”

So, are Twitter’s algorithms nothing more than a money-making tool? On the surface, yes. It’s learning what a user’s behaviors are while engaging with the content on the platform: The articles shared, the search terms used, and so on. The idea is to take that data and translate it to relevant products and services.

“These things aren’t malicious, and they’re not out of control,” states Celis in PBS “Nova” reporter Katherine J. Wu’s article, “Radical ideas spread through social media. Are the algorithms to blame?”. “But it’s also important to acknowledge that these algorithms are small pieces of machinery that affect billions of people.” As Wu puts it, at what point does personalization cross the line to polarizing? The algorithms can’t tell the difference between boating and bigotry, and they aren’t trying to.

Who is to blame?

Like any tool, however, Twitter’s algorithm can be used for benevolent, benign, or malicious purposes. The question is, how influenced are we by them, and more importantly, who is behind the influence? “If the global reach of social media were being used merely to spread messages of peace and harmony—or just to make money—maybe there wouldn’t be any [harm]. But the purposes are often darker,” writes Bloomberg reporter Shelly Banjo.

According to the tech companies that implement them, these programs exist only to help and serve you, the user. In essence, they are saying, “Yes, turning a profit is the ultimate goal, but not before bringing you relevant, customized stories, news information, and products based on your likes and dislikes. You’re the one in control, not us. And if you act out based on content fed to you, then that’s your fault, not ours. It’s your interests and online behavior that caused it to appear in the first place.”

Do (but don’t) be influenced by media

It’s the same illogical mentality behind the idea of product placement in television and movies: Don’t be influenced by the sex and violence on the screen, just the BMW and Coke that happen to be there. If content leads a person to act out in a way other than shopping, especially any negative way, that’s on them. Wu notes, “It would be an oversimplification to point to any single video, article, or blog and say it caused a real-world hate crime. But social media, news sites, and online forums have given an indisputably powerful platform to ideas that can drive extreme violence.”

Maybe all you do is look at hilarious cat videos and share links to your favorite recipes. Think your feed is safe? Think again. In “Facebook, Twitter and the Digital Disinformation Mess,” Banjo also highlights how “social media manipulation campaigns” have been utilized by governments and political parties in 70 countries, including China, Russia, India, Brazil, and Sri Lanka. Circumventing and outsmarting social media firewalls and algorithms, state-sponsored smear campaigns in these countries utilize artificial intelligence and internet bots to flood targeted news feeds with extremist messages and videos. The technology to do this exists, and it’s happening now.

Yet, not all algorithms exist to sway your purchasing decisions or serve tech-giant masters. One promising solution was presented by Binghamton University late last year. Computer scientist Jeremy Blackburn, along with a team of researchers and faculty, “have developed machine-learning algorithms which can successfully identify bullies and aggressors on Twitter with 90 percent accuracy.” While not perfect, it’s important to note that this technology also exists, and it’s a bright ray of hope.

Abuse on Twitter a regular occurrence

This concern over the unchecked power of Twitter, et al and their algorithms cross party lines and media bias, affecting celebrates and everyday citizens alike. (Even actor Sasha Baron Cohen uses the Trump-popularized phrase “fake news” stating in his op-ed piece for the Washington Post that online, “everything can appear equally legitimate.”) He isn’t alone in his criticisms. Fed up with the onslaught of abuse and hate speech, fellow celebrities including Ed Sheeran, Millie Bobby Brown, and Wil Wheaton have limited their presence on Twitter—and have been quite vocal about doing so.

While one might argue that living in the public eye comes with consequences, those not in the limelight are equally disgruntled with the social media platform’s refusal to address rampant harassment. Every day, average users continue to question why nothing operates on the platform to combat abuse. Especially critical of Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, those active on the social media platform call him out for continually refusing to address cyberbullying concerns. In The Atlantic article “Twitter’s New Features Aren’t What Users Asked For,” author Taylor Lorenz shares one frustrated user’s tweet. “The annoying thing is that every few months Jack comes out with a big speech about how they’re going to fix twitter, and ever[y] time they just continue to get it wrong.”

And what of the onslaught of abuse and harassment suffered by private citizens who find themselves thrust into the spotlight as a result of sloppy reporting? Or peer-to-peer cyberbullying occurring across the personal devices of children and teenagers every day? What fills the Twitter feeds of their tormentors? As Wu states, “[Algorithms] don’t have a conscience that tells them when they’ve gone too far. Their top priority is that of their parent company: to showcase the most engaging content—even if that content happens to be disturbing, wrathful, or factually incorrect.” Are abusers fed more and more volatile articles and videos, which in turn fans the flame of the hate and anger they unleash on others?

Twitter slow to respond to user demands

Although Twitter states that combating abuse is a “work in progress,” the company instead chooses to implement useless updates and changes that are, in some instances, only making it easier to engage in harassment. Lorenz adds, “While the company continues to dedicate time and resources to making minor changes aimed at boosting engagement, easy fixes for harassment are ignored.” Most recently, Twitter purged an untold number of QAnon conspiracy theorists, but this one-time housecleaning will not solve how algorithms move the speech on Twitter.

Lorenz reports that in 2016, Online Abuse Prevention Initiative founder Randi Lee Harper laid out several improvement options in a Medium post. Although most were addressed by Twitter eventually, several suggestions that addressed minimizing harassment were ignored. Instead, some of the “updates” the social media platform chose to rollout were mostly cosmetic:

  • changing its user avatars from square-shaped to circular
  • redesigning Moments
  • adding topic tags to the Explore page
  • spamming users’ timelines with a “happening now” section
  • adding endless notifications
  • upping the character limit to 280
  • promoting live videos of sports events
  • revamping its algorithm to give older tweets more prominence

Taking Twitter to Task

Close on that last one, Twitter, but you miss the mark again. An algorithm revamp, but of a different sort, is what the public is demanding. New on the media scene (compared to that of television, movies, and the radio), social media’s persuasive power has remained largely unchecked, and the law is desperately trying to catch up.

In his op-ed piece, Baron Cohen brings to light a chilling fact: the large technology companies behind these platforms are, for the most part, beholden to no one—not even the law:

“These super-rich “Silicon Six” care more about boosting their share price than about protecting democracy. This is ideological imperialism—six unelected individuals in Silicon Valley imposing their vision on the rest of the world, unaccountable to any government and acting like they’re above the reach of the law. Surely, instead of letting the Silicon Six decide the fate of the world over, our democratically elected representatives should have at least some say.”

The “Silicon Six” Baron Cohen refers to are American billionaires and tech giant CEOs and/or founders Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Sundar Pichai (Google), Larry Page (Google), Sergey Brin (Google), Susan Wojcicki (YouTube), and Jack Dorsey (Twitter). Similarly, Wu notes that one of the biggest reasons to be wary of social media companies’ algorithms is that, “[only] a limited subset of people are privy to what’s actually in them.”

In his article for The Verge, reporter Casey Newton writes that while Baron Cohen efforts to amend Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (the driving force behind his speech and opinion piece) are somewhat misguided, he raises some valuable points. Newton agrees with him about not only the dangers of algorithmic recommendations on social platforms but that the aforementioned “Silicon Six” have been permitted so much influence “thanks to a combination of ignorance and inattention from our elected officials.”

Data journalist Meredith Broussard, communications expert Safiya Noble, and computer scientist Nisheeth Vishoni (all interviewed for Wu’s article for “Nova”) feel social media algorithms should be tested and vetted as strenuously as drugs before they hit the market.

Noble further states, “We expect that companies shouldn’t be allowed to pollute the air and water in ways that might hurt us. We should also expect a high-quality media environment not polluted with disinformation, lies, propaganda. We need for democracy to work. Those are fair things for people to expect and require policymakers to start talking about.” These companies can’t police themselves, nor should they. If social media companies do not change their ways, then our elected officials in Washington should change the rules for them.

Todd McMurtry is a nationally recognized attorney whose practice focuses on defamation, social media law, cyberbullying, and professional malpractice. You can follow him on Twitter @ToddMcMurtry.


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CategoriesPodcasts The Marcus Carey Perspective

“Violence Is Never Justified In America” Is That True?

Pundits, politicians and provocateurs all are talking about “violence”.  They condemn rioters, they denounce harsh language, they tried to impeach Donald Trump for political speech.  I’ll touch the third rail because I’m insulated by the truth: violence is sometimes justified and I’ve got the facts to prove it.

All Episodes, Newest First

CategoriesSpeaking Freely with Todd McMurtry

So Someone Called You a Racist or Bigot, . . .

As many of you know, for the past few years my law practice has become more and more focused on reputational issues. Nearly every day, someone who has been called a racist or bigot contacts me to seek guidance. Businesspeople, professionals, professors, college students, and even high school students are targeted for condemnation and cancellation. It is routine for people to file website petitions (on sites like, calling for another person’s firing due to a comment perceived to be racist or bigoted. Today, a person who competes too aggressively on the playing field can be called a racist. Raising the slightest objection to a corporate policy geared toward the LGBTQ community earns you the “bigot” title. The smallest transgression can result in the immediate loss of a job, removal from an office, and even scrubbing from employer records. I am not exaggerating when I say that cancellation represents an existential threat to your future.

So, what is a person to do? The first and best policy is to avoid statements that lend themselves to misinterpretation. As a part of this strategy, you should get off social media entirely. Close your Facebook and become anonymous on Twitter. Even the most carefully cultivated social media posts, reinterpreted five years from now, can be condemned for saying the “wrong thing.”

At work, you must learn that you do not have any friends whom you can trust. You can never let down your guard. You can never trust that your coworkers, partners, or those whom you teach will not misinterpret something you said. The risks are too high.

However, if someone calls you a racist or bigot despite the best efforts, I have learned that the only effective response is to fight back with everything you have. I also recommend that you first hire an attorney to advise you about your circumstances before you do anything. Each state has different laws on these issues, so you need a competent professional familiar with your state’s laws to help.

If a coworker calls you a bigot and will not retract after you confront them, you need to have your attorney contact them. If a person establishes a petition calling you a racist, you need to send that person a letter and force them to take the petition down immediately or face the consequences. In today’s electronic society, these things do not go away. When you apply for college, for graduate school, for your first job, for your 2nd job, and on and on, the record of the false allegation will live forever.

As our society moves more and more in the direction of cancellation for people who fail to abide by prevailing opinions, they run a severe risk of losing their economic livelihood or suffering hundreds of thousands of dollars of damages to their ability to earn an income. Again, I am not exaggerating when I say that people call me and tell me how they were fired or how their businesses were destroyed over racism and bigotry allegations.

So, is there hope? I have always believed that truth wins out in the end. Unfortunately, right now, we are at a point in our history that does not tolerate dissent. I am sure in time, as has happened in the past, things will balance out. Until then, be very careful. A parting thought is that you personally do not need to fight this fight. There are many people out there who have already been canceled and can speak truth to power. Let them do their job, and maybe in time, things will get better.
Be safe.

CategoriesFarm Girl News

I’m Not Buying It!

Lately there’s been much news about boycotting this company, and not patronizing that company, because of their political views or actions. While I’m all for making a stand for what we believe in, it does become increasingly harder to adhere to all the constraints we have put on ourselves in the name of solidarity. 

Recently there’s been a huge push to boycott Amazon for the part they played in the recent de-platforming of Parler. What Amazon did to Parler was unconscionable, no matter what your political affiliation is.  Can censorship ever be acceptable?  Is it ever to okay to stifle the free speech of another just because it doesn’t align with what’s popular?  Our country was founded on dissension from the norms.  What if our forefathers had allowed their words, their beliefs and their lives to be stifled by popular political doctrine?  Would we all be sipping tea and bending the knee to the English monarchy?

In additional to their pay for services, Amazon is also a forum for small businesses to sell their goods.  In many respects, it’s a virtual mall where individual companies’ set up shop.  If we boycott Amazon, then what happens to these small online retailers?  If you see something you want/need on Amazon, check to see who the seller is.  Often times, you can order the item directly from the seller instead. 

Ultimately giving money to the “tech titans” is the last thing I personally want to do.  If only I could put down my iphone, Ipad and Macbook.  But what is the alternative?  Supporting Microsoft, HP and Google?  It’s a darned if you do and darned if you don’t situation. Either way your are supporting big tech.

Maybe it’s better to replace boycotting with conscientious buying.  Sounds kind of the same doesn’t it?  But it’s not.  Conscientious buying is purchasing from a retailer because of who they are and what they support, rather than not buying from someone because of what they support.  Do you see how I gave it a positive spin there?

Conscientious buying is about buying local and supporting companies that you want to thrive.  It’s about taking your money and having it be part of what makes a company successful.  Go to the local markets instead of going to a big box grocery.  Buy gifts from a local boutique instead of one of the major chains.  Eat at a local cafe rather than a franchise restaurant. Be thoughtful about what you spend and who you spend it with.  It’s not about depriving the large companies, but it’s more about supporting the small ones. 

Knowing who you support goes a long way with online services too.  One of my favorite online softwares is Airtable.  It’s a database software that I use for most of my clients.  If you can create a spreadsheet, you can create a database in Airtable. I never gave it much thought in the past, but recently felt led to see whether Airtable is a US based company.  Happily, it is. Going forward I plan to make sure that future purchases support our country.  Even a company with differing political ideology that supports the US economy is preferable to one that benefits countries that seek to do us harm.

When it comes to boycotts to social media, rather than seek out a new social media, maybe it’s time to we set down our phones and our tablets and enjoy the world around us.  Go outside and build a snowman. Play a game with your kids. Do anything that doesn’t include “screen time”.  If you can’t or don’t want to walk away completely, reduce your online time.  It’s called “fasting” social media and it can be so rewarding by giving you and your family the opportunity to spend time together and create memories.

Ultimately there are many ways we can make a stand for what we believe in. Concentrating on the positive by supporting businesses that appreciate our patronage, is far better than boycotting a company in retaliation. In the end the result is the same, but one can feed your soul while blessing a business that is deserving of your hard-earned dollars.