What does it imply that Musk wants to make the Twitter algorithm public?

(CNN) — On March 24, weeks before offered to buy TwitterElon Musk posted a poll on the 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 that it is publicly available for anyone to view, rework, and use for other purposes. But what Musk was asking, essentially, was whether the rules that technology follows to determine what you see in your Twitter feed should be public, too. More than one million votes were counted at the close of the poll, with an overwhelming majority in favor (82.7%).

The implication of Musk’s suggestion and his acquired survey took on new weight last week, after the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX announced that he was offering to buy all the shares of Twitter he didn’t already own in a deal that would value the company. in about US$ 41,000 million. On Friday, Twitter’s board of directors announced a so-called “poison pill” measure that could make it harder for Musk to acquire the company.

If the deal goes through, Musk has said his goal is to “unleash” Twitter’s “extraordinary potential,” but his suggestions for specific changes to do so have been vague. One of his main goals has been to strengthen freedom of expression on the platform, and his suggestion on algorithms is central to that effort.

Hours after Musk made his offer to buy Twitter, he repeated the idea of ​​making Twitter’s algorithms public from the stage of a TED conference in Vancouver. He also said it should be clearer to users when Twitter takes any action that impacts what you tweet, such as decisions to amplify or downplay tweets.

In this way, he explained in the TED talk, “there is no kind of manipulation behind the scenes, neither algorithmic nor manual.” The audience applauded loudly in response. (Twitter yes add labels to tweets for a number of reasons, such as if a post contains misleading information or if a post violates the social network’s rules but remains available after being determined to be “in the public interest”).

Musk is not alone in calling for tech platforms to be more transparent with their algorithms. After the publication in 2021 of the so-called “Facebook Papers”, which showed how algorithms can fuel polarization and lead users down dangerous rabbit holes, has renewed scrutiny on the algorithms that increasingly dominate our lives. Additionally, Twitter co-founder and former CEO Jack Dorsey has called for more to be done to give users control over the social network, including answering the survey Musk quoted her on Twitter with a comment of her own: “The choice of which algorithm to use (or not) should be open to everyone.”

Musk is also right to point out that the algorithms that underpin the company are a key part of what makes Twitter, well, Twitter. After all, algorithms, which in their simplest form are a set of instructions, are the basis of countless products and services that depend on computing. They are used to find out what tweets you see from people you follow on the platform and to show you tweets from other people that Twitter thinks you’d like to see, based on a number of factors such as the accounts you interact with, the popularity of a tweet and how other people you know interact with a tweet. They are also used to crop images that people post and to remove hateful content. And if you choose to view tweets in the order they’ve been posted on Twitter, that too uses an algorithm.

But making the algorithms that shape what you see on Twitter public will not be enough to make Twitter a more transparent company, according to experts in artificial intelligence and open source software. Even if it ultimately helps address some mistrust critics have of Twitter’s content-control actions, moving in this direction could also create a new set of risks for Twitter.

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

The limitations of Musk’s plan

Even those who can understand the code that goes into an algorithm do not necessarily understand how it works. For example, technology companies often give no more than a basic explanation of how their algorithmic systems work and what they are used for. The people who build these systems don’t always know why they reach their conclusions, which is why they are often called “black boxes.”

Allowing anyone to see the site’s code is “a bit silly,” said Vladimir Filkov, a professor of computer science at the University of California, Davis, because so few people can understand how Twitter’s code base goes about producing what it does. what you see on the screen.

“By definition, open source means you can see it, but it 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 software projects. most effective open source

Those who understand it would be able to figure out how Twitter decides which tweet to show users, said Ariel Procaccia, a Harvard University computer science professor who has conducted studies in artificial intelligence and economics.

“In those circumstances, the company had better make sure its algorithms are fair, as they will surely be held accountable if they are not,” Procaccia said. “I think this would be a net positive for users.”

Filkov thinks it would be very useful to follow the example of what other open source projects often do next to 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 series of risks for Twitter

In addition to the effectiveness of making Twitter’s algorithms open source, there is also the question of what, exactly, would be released to the public along with the code.

If Twitter publishes only the machine learning algorithm it uses to decide what’s and isn’t allowed on the platform, for example, but not the training data that was used to inform that algorithm, it would be “pretty insignificant,” Allison Randal said. , board member of the Software Freedom Conservancy and the Open Infrastructure Foundation. However, things get complicated when training data is taken into account. If that training data includes private tweets, posting them would have “huge negative privacy implications,” she said.

However, making Twitter’s algorithms public would not necessarily mean any changes to the platform. Users would not be able to make any changes to the code that runs the social network unless Twitter allowed such actions (for example, by deploying a mod to all users, or allowing individual users to test the code that controls their accounts). personal).

“Of course, users could copy the code and modify it, but those changes would not affect the algorithms deployed on Twitter,” Procaccia said. “It is highly unlikely that Twitter would even consider deploying changes made by non-employees.”

While making its algorithms public could increase user trust, it could also give Twitter’s competitors an edge. As Procaccia pointed out, rivals could copy and deploy Twitter’s algorithms.

It must also be done carefully to avoid security flaws, Filkov said. He believes that the release of the code should be accompanied by an effort to ensure that the code base is more secure.

“Understanding the code means also understanding the flaws in the code,” he said. “So a bad actor can certainly take advantage of knowing the code and exposing the platform to risks, which can include account takeovers or exposing the platform to misinformation.”

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What does it imply that Musk wants to make the Twitter algorithm public?