Twitter and the Problem of White Supremacists

Jason Koebler, writing at Motherboard, explains in no uncertain terms why Jack Dorsey and the rest of the Twitter higher-ups can’t ban Nazis and white supremacists on the platform.

They’d be banning Republicans too.

Twitter has a white supremacist problem and it’s one the platform has had trouble addressing.

Apparently, if they autoban Twitter accounts that represent terrorists like ISIS or al Qaeda in the same way they would autoban Twitter accounts that represent white supremacist terrorists, the algorithm would sweep up some Republican politicians.

Boo. Hoo.

At a Twitter all-hands meeting on March 22, an employee asked a blunt question: Twitter has largely eradicated Islamic State propaganda off its platform. Why can’t it do the same for white supremacist content?

An executive responded by explaining that Twitter follows the law, and a technical employee who works on machine learning and artificial intelligence issues went up to the mic to add some context. (As Motherboard has previously reported, algorithms are the next great hope for platforms trying to moderate the posts of their hundreds of millions, or billions, of users.)

With every sort of content filter, there is a tradeoff, he explained. When a platform aggressively enforces against ISIS content, for instance, it can also flag innocent accounts as well, such as Arabic language broadcasters. Society, in general, accepts the benefit of banning ISIS for inconveniencing some others, he said.

In separate discussions verified by Motherboard, that employee said Twitter hasn’t taken the same aggressive approach to white supremacist content because the collateral accounts that are impacted can, in some instances, be Republican politicians.

The employee argued that, on a technical level, content from Republican politicians could get swept up by algorithms aggressively removing white supremacist material. Banning politicians wouldn’t be accepted by society as a trade-off for flagging all of the white supremacist propaganda, he argued.

Pretty sure society would be just fine with that trade-off. Other white supremacists would be upset, of course, but if you are a white supremacist and happen to be a politician I think that would be telling.

The real problem is the fact that there are enough GOP politicians who post on Twitter content that is difficult for an algorithm to distinguish from white supremacists. Basically, Twitter has a white supremacy problem, but really American politics has one too.

April 26, 2019


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