When Republican Representative Jim Jordan attended a judicial hearing in 2020, he made it clear why he disliked companies like Twitter.
"Big Tech is out to get conservatives," Jordan proclaimed. "That's not a suspicion. That's not a hunch. It's a fact. I said that two months ago at our last hearing. It's every bit as true today."
Jordan's claim isn't isolated. Led by former President Trump, a growing number of right-leaning voices are claiming that social media is biased in favor of liberals and progressives, shutting down conservatives. But an internal study released by Twitter shows that the opposite is true -- in the US, as well as most countries that were analyzed, it's actually conservative voices that are amplified more than liberal voices.
"Our results reveal a remarkably consistent trend: In 6 out of 7 countries studied [including the US], the mainstream political right enjoys higher algorithmic amplification than the mainstream political left. Consistent with this overall trend, our second set of findings studying the U.S. media landscape revealed that algorithmic amplification favours right-leaning news sources," Twitter's study reads.
Algorithmic amplification refers to a type of story 'amplified' by Twitter's algorithm -- in other words, a story that the algorithm is more likely to show to other users.
The study has two main parts. The first one focused on the US and analyzed where media outlets were more likely to be amplified if they were politicized, while the other focused on tweets from politicians from seven countries.
Twitter analyzed millions of tweets posted between April 1st and August 15th, 2020. The tweets were selected from news outlets and elected officials in 7 countries: Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Spain, the UK, and the US. In all countries except Germany, tweets from right-leaning accounts “receive more algorithmic amplification than the political left.” In general, right-leaning content from news outlets seemed to benefit from the same bias. In other words, users on Twitter are more likely to see right-leaning content rather than left-leaning, all things being equal. In the UK, for instance, the right-leaning Conservatives enjoyed an amplification rate of 176%, compared to 112% for the left-leaning Labour party.
However, Twitter emphasizes that its algorithm doesn't favor extreme content from either side of the political spectrum.
"We further looked at whether algorithms amplify far-left and far-right political groups more than moderate ones: contrary to prevailing public belief, we did not find evidence to support this hypothesis. We hope our findings will contribute to an evidence-based debate on the role personalization algorithms play in shaping political content consumption," the study read.
While it is clear that politicized content is amplified on Twitter, it's not entirely clear why this happens. However, this seems to be connected to a phenomenon present on all social media platforms. Algorithms are designed to promote intense conversations and debate -- and a side effect of this is that controversy is often boosted. Simply put, if a US Democrat says something about a Republican (or vice versa), this is likely to draw both praise and criticism, and is likely to be promoted and boosted by the algorithm.
Although Twitter did not focus on this directly, the phenomenon is also key to disinformation, which we've seen a lot of during the pandemic. For instance, if a conspiracy theory is posted on Twitter, there's a good chance it will gather both the appraisal of those who believe it and the criticism of those who see through it -- which makes it more likely to be further amplified on social media.
It's interesting that Germany stands out as an exception, but this could be related to Germany’s agreement with Facebook, Twitter, and Google to remove hate speech within 24 hours. This is still only speculation and there could be other factors at play.
Ultimately, in addition to contradicting a popular conspiracy theory that social media is against conservatives, the study shows just how much social media algorithms can shape and sway public opinion, by presenting some posts instead of others. Twitter's study is an encouraging first step towards more transparency, but it's a baby step when we're looking at a very long race ahead of us.