Elon Musk thinks Twitter’s algorithm should be public. Here’s what it could mean

By Rachel Metz | CNN Business

On March 24, a few weeks before he offered to buy TwitterElon Musk published a poll on the social media platform“Twitter’s algorithm should be open source,” he wrote, with options for users to vote “yes” or “no.”

Some of Twitter’s technology is already open source, which means it is publicly available and anyone can view it, edit it, and use it for other purposes. But what Musk was asking, essentially, was whether the rules that computers follow to determine what you see in your Twitter feed should also be public. More than a million votes were counted at the close of the ballot, with an overwhelming number of “yes” votes (82.7%).

The implication of Musk’s suggestion and poll took on new weight last week, after the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX announced he had offered to buy all the shares of Twitter he didn’t already own. in a deal that would value the company at around $41 billion. On Friday, Twitter’s board announced a so-called “poison pill” measure that could complicate Musk’s acquisition of the company.

If the deal goes through, Musk said his goal is to “unlock” Twitter’s “extraordinary potential,” but his suggestions for specific changes on how to do this may have been vague. One of his main goals has been to bolster free speech on the platform, and his suggestion of algorithms is central to that effort.

Hours after Musk made his offer to buy Twitter, he repeated the idea for the open source of Twitter algorithms during a stage appearance at the TED conference in Vancouver. He also said it should be clearer to users when actions are taken by Twitter that impact what you tweet, such as decisions to amplify or de-emphasize tweets.

That way, he told TED, “there’s no kind of manipulation behind the scenes, either algorithmically or manually.” Members of the TED audience clapped loudly in response. (Twitter add labels to tweets for a variety of reasons, such as if a post contains misleading information or if a post violates the social network’s rules but is kept available after being deemed “in the public interest”.)

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Musk isn’t alone in asking tech platforms to be more transparent with their algorithms. Following the release in 2021 of the Facebook papers, which showed how algorithms can fuel division and lead users down dangerous rabbit holes, there has been renewed scrutiny regarding the algorithms that increasingly dominate our lives. Additionally, Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey called for more to be done to give users control over the social network, including to respond to Musk’s poll by quoting him on Twitter with his own comment: “The choice of which algorithm to use (or not) should be open to everyone.”

Musk is also right to point to the algorithms that support the company as a key part of what makes Twitter, well, Twitter. After all, algorithms, which are at the simplest a set of instructions, underpin countless products and services that depend on computers. They’re used to determine which tweets you see from people you follow on the platform and show you tweets from other people that Twitter thinks you’d like to see, based on a variety of factors such as accounts with you interact with, how popular a tweet is, and how other people you know interact with a tweet. They are also used to crop the images people post and to remove hateful content. And if you choose to display tweets in order of when they were posted on Twitter, that also uses an algorithm.

But going public with the algorithms that shape what you see on Twitter won’t on its own do much to make Twitter a more transparent company, say experts in artificial intelligence and open source software. While this ultimately helps dispel some of the critics’ mistrust of Twitter’s content enforcement actions, moving in this direction could also create a new set of risks for Twitter.

Musk did not respond to a request for comment from CNN Business. Twitter declined to comment.

The limits of Musk’s plan

Even those who can understand the code that goes into an algorithm don’t necessarily understand how it works. Consider, for example, how there is often little more than a basic explanation from tech companies of how their algorithmic systems work and what they are used for. The people who build these systems don’t always know why they come to their conclusions, which is why they are commonly referred to as “black boxes”.

Allowing anyone to see the site’s code is “a bit insane,” said Vladimir Filkov, a computer science professor at the University of California, Davis, because very few people can understand how Twitter’s codebase works for produce what they see on their screens.

“By definition, open source means you can see the code, but that doesn’t mean you can understand the policies or influence the policies that lead to that code,” said Filkov, who develops tools to help developers. run more efficient open source software. software projects.

That said, those who can understand it would be able to understand how Twitter decides which tweets to show users, said Ariel Procaccia, a computer science professor at Harvard University whose studies include artificial intelligence and economics.

“In these circumstances, the company better make sure its algorithms are right, because it would surely be held responsible if they weren’t,” Procaccia said. “I think that would be a net positive for users.”

Filkov thinks it would be really helpful to take inspiration from what other open source projects often do alongside their code: publicly list the policies that lead to that code.

“Understanding those policies would be easier than understanding the code,” he said.

A new set of risks for Twitter

Besides the effectiveness of Twitter’s open-source algorithms, there’s also the question of what, exactly, would be made public with the code.

If Twitter were to open source just a machine learning algorithm it uses to decide what is and isn’t allowed on the platform, for example, but not the training data that was used to inform this algorithm, it would be “pretty meaningless, said Allison Randal, board member of the Software Freedom Conservancy and the Open Infrastructure Foundation. However, it gets stickier if you consider the training data. If that training data includes private tweets, publishing it would have “massive negative privacy implications,” she said.

However, making Twitter’s algorithms public would not necessarily result in changes to Twitter. Users could not make changes to the code that runs the social network unless Twitter allows such actions (such as by rolling out a change to all users or letting individual users use the code that controls their personal accounts ).

“Users could of course copy the code and modify it, but such changes would not affect the algorithms deployed on Twitter itself,” Procaccia said. “Twitter is highly unlikely to even consider rolling out changes made by non-employees.”

While making its algorithms publicly available could increase user trust, it could also give Twitter’s competitors an edge. As Procaccia noted, competitors could copy and deploy Twitter’s algorithms.

It also needs to be done carefully to avoid security vulnerabilities, Filkov said. He thinks the public release of the code should be accompanied by an effort to ensure that the codebase is more secure.

“Understanding the code also means understanding the flaws in the code,” he said. “So someone who is a bad actor can certainly take advantage of knowledge of the code and expose the platform to risk, which can include taking over accounts or exposing the platform to misinformation. .”

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