Jack Dorsey tells me how Twitter is dealing with challenges arising from human biases

“Maybe the goal to change someone’s mind is not the right goal” — Jack Dorsey, Twitter CEO

Extensive academic research shows how inherent psychological biases dictate how we process information, decide what’s true or not true and form opinions about socio-political issues. These biases influence our political discourse and feed into consequential policy decisions.

They are also at play when we interact with technology. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have no option but to deal with it.

On Tuesday, a colleague and I interviewed Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey for the Hindustan Times. This is Dorsey’s first visit to India and we got around 30 minutes to chat with him at Twitter’s Delhi office. Three things stood out for me as they offered an insight on how Twitter is dealing with the challenges that are somewhat related to human biases.

1. On accusations of Twitter’s “left-leaning liberal bias”

What: Twitter has been accused of “left-leaning liberal bias” — that it suppresses the voice of right-leaning conservatives. So does a section of the Indian right-wing Twitter, especially in the context of suspending accounts.

What Dorsey said: “We need to operate with impartiality, not neutrality.”

The most important thing Twitter can do to assure that the platform is non-partisan is to be more transparent, Dorsey told us.

Jack Dorsey: “Every single person in the world has some sort of a bias. We are never going to remove that. But you can approach things with impartiality and we can be transparent about how that works and where mistakes were made.”

The platform was lacking transparency in the past, Dorsey admitted, but is “getting better” at it.

“We need to operate with impartiality, not neutrality,” he added. Being impartial means that the company’s actions and policy don’t inherently have a bias or favour one person over another for the wrong reasons.

As for account suspension, this means offering a detailed explanation of why an account was removed and what specific terms and conditions were violated, he said. Twitter has not done that yet.

2. On filter bubbles

What are filter bubbles: Filter bubbles are activated by personalised social-media feeds, where netizens get stuck in an echo chamber, hearing same voices repeatedly that confirm their own thoughts and beliefs.

In words of internet activist Eli Pariser, who coined the term, filter bubbles “are algorithms that create a unique universe of information for each of us, which fundamentally alters the way we encounter ideas and information”.

Dorsey is clear about this: “Filter bubbles exist. And the current Twitter helps build them,” he said.

The solution he has in mind: To allow people to follow topics instead of just user profiles, as Twitter is structured right now.

Jack Dorsey: “If we enable people to follow topics, users actually get to see more perspective. Because if you only follow an account, you are likely hearing only one point of view. It’s very rare that people express one point and then express counterpoint to their point too.”

Does breaking the bubble help? The academic community is divided on whether breaking apart filter bubbles actually helps. Some argue that exposing people to alternative viewpoints may actually embolden their pre-existing beliefs.

Dorsey acknowledged the divide. His personal take: “I don’t really buy the research that says it [filter bubbles] emboldens [existing views],” he said.

Jack Dorsey: “Maybe the goal of changing someone’s mind is the wrong goal. Maybe the right goal is to be more informed about the issue and see it more comprehensively. And make a more informed choice. We need to show more perspectives. But people try to game them and that is dangerous.”

3. On fake news

Fake news is arguably Twitter’s biggest ongoing headache. Dorsey has spoken extensively about this issue over the past two years, especially after the revelations that Russian trolls and bots had infiltrated Twitter and Facebook with misinformation in the run-up to the 2016 American presidential election.

It is this challenge where Dorsey did not have much specifics to share.

Twitter’s focus, the CEO said, is to identify actors that intentionally want to mislead others to take an action and stop its amplification. There can’t be a perfect solution, he said.

Jack Dorsey: “We are not going to come up with a perfect solution because we will always be evolving and experimenting. We may build a solution that works today and then people will find a way to game it and wrap around it. We can’t rest on one solution. And make sure we are ten steps ahead of people who are trying to game the system to amplify misinformation.”

From experience of recent elections in the US and Mexico, Twitter had two key takeaways, he said.

  1. One, providing more context for people to determine the credibility of the information they consume.
  2. Second, having an effective real-time monitoring mechanism and maintaining streamlined contact with government agencies.

The bigger question: Is Twitter doing enough?

A recent October 2018 study from authors at Stanford University and New York University brought bad news for the company: researchers found that “interactions with fake news stories fell sharply on Facebook while they continued to rise on Twitter.”

Such studies serve as independent audits of how platforms are dealing with the challenge and hold them accountable.

I asked Dorsey what he thinks about it. He downplayed the report.

Jack Dorsey: “To set some context, researchers can only sample data: they don’t see the full set of tweets that we see. So all these are going to be biased towards particular conclusions.”

Plus, he emphasised that comparing Facebook and Twitter is not appropriate.

Jack Dorsey: “Twitter is a platform people use to get their news and see what’s happening in the world. Facebook announced not too long ago a shift in another direction which is around personal interactions, not news. It would certainly not be a leap to consider if you remove most news from the feed that all the numbers are going to go down.”