Is Twitter biased against the Indian right-wing?

What: Twitter was summoned before an Indian parliamentary panel on information technology in reactions to concerns expressed by Indian right-wing users that the platform operates with an anti right-wing bias and censors their speech.

Twitter said the CEO couldn’t make it:

On February 9, Twitter responded that the company’s CEO would not be able to attend the meeting because of the short notice given to him, but that the company was open to finding a more suitable date. This led to outrage in the BJP and the party’s supporters online.

On Monday, the Committee declined to meet officials from Twitter India, and unanimously decided to instead call the CEO Jack Dorsey and his top executives for a hearing on February 25. (Indian Express)

What is the accusation: Read this paragraph from an open letter written by Nupur Sharma, the editor of OpIndia, a right-wing web portal:

We have repeatedly watched in agony as some handles with diverse political views, mostly right-leaning have been suspended willy-nilly for the most asinine reasons. We have watched with disappointment as some genuine abuse was ignored only because it came from the people who perhaps conform ideologically to Twitter’s inherent bias. We have watched as several accounts are ‘shadow-banned’ where the reach of their voice is curbed. (OpIndia)

Sharma says that Twitter is espousing a left ideology while wearing the cloak of neutrality, which she considers a problem.

Read more: An advocate wrote to Home Minister complaining about Twitter’s bias

The root problem: Twitter and other platforms are under constant pressure to clean their platforms, curb abuse and curtail the spread of misinformation. That means platforms have to take a subjective call on what content will stay and what gets removed. Value judgements need to be made. That opens the door of bias accusations. The right wing believes that the so-called efforts to clean the platform is a hoax and more so a proxy to censor their speech, hindering free exchange of ideas.

Is there really a bias?

Only Twitter knows: In my view, the claims are largely exaggerated in the Indian context. I have not seen any conclusive evidence to back the accusations. To be sure, it is difficult to independently audit and confirm these claims. We don’t know how Twitter’s algorithms work, we don’t know how the content policies are implemented, and the company doesn’t provide adequate explanation about its enforcement decisions.

Not a new claim: The allegations of Twitter’s so-called liberal bias are not new. United States President Donald Trump regularly tweets how Silicon Valley, in general, is biased against conservatives.

One commonly-cited reason: employee bias

In an interview with Recode, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey candidly admitted that the company has many more left-leaning employees than right-leaners. He even said that conservative (right-wing) employees “don’t feel safe to express their opinions”. That raises questions:

Twitter, YouTube and Facebook have largely tried to avoid any issues of political bias by relying heavily on software algorithms to determine which content is shown to which users. Software algorithms are written by humans, though, which means they likely have biases as well. Now Dorsey is saying conservative Twitter employees don’t feel comfortable speaking up, which leads to questions about how products at companies like Twitter are made and who has input in making them. (Recode)

Forget politics, look at the economics: I think it’s not in Twitter’s business interest to censor right-wing voices.

I largely concur with the view that technology companies should be seen as just another business: “a business, like any other, out for itself and itself alone, and most definitely not changing the world for the better,” as tech journalist Kara Swisher wrote in her latest New York Times column.

Going by that logic—profit is all the matters—it is clear that it is not in Twitter’s best financial best interest to “alienate a large portion of its users”, as Darren Linvill, an associate professor at Clemson University in the US, told Quartz India.

Even if Twitter wanted to try to target individual conservative voices in India, I wonder if it is actually in a position to do so. Twitter didn’t report a profitable quarter until the end of 2017, that’s 12 years after its founding. Others have argued that Twitter profits greatly from users’ extremist political views. There may or may not be truth to this, but at a minimum, I don’t think Twitter would view it as being in its financial best interest at this point to alienate a large portion of its users. (Quartz)

What Twitter can do: In November, a colleague and I interviewed Jack Dorsey on his India visit for the Hindustan Times. When we asked him about the left-leaning bias accusations, the Twitter CEO said that “the most important thing Twitter can do to assure that the platform is non-partisan is to be more transparent”

“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.”

Dorsey said that Twitter’s lack of transparency is part of the problem and the company is getting better at it. It doesn’t look so, though.