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Twitter will share how race and politics shape its algorithms

Twitter announced how it will study the fairness and bias in its machine learning algorithms today.

Twitter announced how it will study the fairness and bias in its machine learning algorithms today.

Photo: Joshua Hoehne/Unsplash

Twitter is studying the biases within its algorithms as part of a new effort to try to understand how its machine learning tools can cause unintended consequences, and the company says it plans to publicly share some of its findings.


The company plans to prioritize what it's calling the pillars of "responsible ML," which include "taking responsibility for our algorithmic decisions, equity and fairness of outcomes, transparency about our decisions and how we arrived at them, and enabling agency and algorithmic choice," according to a Wednesday announcement outlining this approach. Rumman Chowdhury, the leader of Twitter's ML Ethics, Transparency and Accountability team, co-wrote the statement with Jutta Williams.

The company will eventually provide some kind of public analyses for at least three different areas of study: a gender and racial bias analysis of the image cropping algorithm, a fairness assessment of timeline recommendations across racial subgroups, and an analysis of content recommendations for different political ideologies across seven countries, according to the post. Twitter claims that it will then use those findings to prioritize "tweaks" to its algorithms to address the most pressing issues, or even larger changes to its product, like removing an algorithm (such as the image cropper ML) entirely.

The idea of creating "agency and algorithmic choice" based on research and transparency is not new to Twitter. In its announcements about product developments and user safety, Twitter has over the last year heavily emphasized the idea of "agency," saying that it wants to give users more choices about their experience on Twitter. "The point is not to make the entire world a safe space: That's not possible. The point is to empower people and communities to have the tools to heal harm themselves and to prevent harm to themselves and put them in control," the head of Twitter's product for conversational safety team, Christine Su, told Protocol last year.

Twitter, Facebook, Youtube and other social companies continue to face increasing scrutiny from academics and Congress alike for how their algorithms may reflect or reinforce people's unintended racial, gender-based, or political biases, as evidence continues to accumulate that most widely-used algorithms often reflect and then enhance the biases present in the data used to create them. All of the major tech companies have launched initiatives to attempt to appease the critics. Twitter has for more than a year been prioritizing what it calls "health" on its service, but today's announcement that the company will share how race and politics shape its algorithms is its most explicit effort to create transparency around this specific issue.

The company first planted a flag in this effort when it hired Chowdhury, a widely-respected pioneer in the field of applied algorithmic accountability and ethics, to lead the META team in February. For experts and academics in the artificial intelligence field, Chowdhury's appointment made Twitter's expressed commitment to algorithmic accountability and fairness much more credible. Su, the leader of the conversational safety team for product, was also hired within the last year. Williams joined Twitter in September, according to her LinkedIn profile.

AI ethics became a flashpoint more broadly in the tech industry after Google fired both of the women who had previously co-founded and led its AI ethics team, prominent researchers Timnit Gebru and Margaret Mitchell. Chowdhury's appointment at Twitter was announced on the same day that Google formally dismissed Mitchell and ended its investigation into Gebru's firing, setting (unintentionally, according to Twitter) a stark contrast between the two companies.

Protocol | China

China’s edtech crackdown isn’t what you think. Here’s why.

It's part of an attempt to fix education inequality and address a looming demographic crisis.

In the past decade, China's private tutoring market has expanded rapidly as it's been digitized and bolstered by capital.

Photo: Getty Images

Beijing's strike against the private tutoring and ed tech industry has rattled the market and led observers to try to answer one big question: What is Beijing trying to achieve?

Sweeping policy guidelines issued by the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party on July 24 and the State Council now mandate that existing private tutoring companies register as nonprofit organizations. Extracurricular tutoring companies will be banned from going public. Online tutoring agencies will be subject to regulatory approval.

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After a year and a half of living and working through a pandemic, it's no surprise that employees are sending out stress signals at record rates. According to a 2021 study by Indeed, 52% of employees today say they feel burnt out. Over half of employees report working longer hours, and a quarter say they're unable to unplug from work.

The continued swell of reported burnout is a concerning trend for employers everywhere. Not only does it harm mental health and well-being, but it can also impact absenteeism, employee retention and — between the drain on morale and high turnover — your company culture.

Crisis management is one thing, but how do you permanently lower the temperature so your teams can recover sustainably? Companies around the world are now taking larger steps to curb burnout, with industry leaders like LinkedIn, Hootsuite and Bumble shutting down their offices for a full week to allow all employees extra time off. The CEO of Okta, worried about burnout, asked all employees to email him their vacation plans in 2021.

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It’s soul-destroying and it uses DRM, therefore Peloton is tech

"I mean, the pedals go around if you turn off all the tech, but Peloton isn't selling a pedaling product."

Is this tech? Or is it just a bike with a screen?

Image: Peloton and Protocol

One of the breakout hits from the pandemic, besides Taylor Swift's "Folklore," has been Peloton. With upwards of 5.4 million members as of March and nearly $1.3 billion in revenue that quarter, a lot of people are turning in their gym memberships for a bike or a treadmill and a slick-looking app.

But here at Protocol, it's that slick-looking app, plus all the tech that goes into it, that matters. And that's where things got really heated during our chat this week. Is Peloton tech? Or is it just a bike with a giant tablet on it? Can all bikes be tech with a little elbow grease?

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Protocol | Workplace

In Silicon Valley, it’s February 2020 all over again

"We'll reopen when it's right, but right now the world is changing too much."

Tech companies are handling the delta variant in differing ways.

Photo: alvarez/Getty Images

It's still 2021, right? Because frankly, it's starting to feel like March 2020 all over again.

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Protocol | China

Livestreaming ecommerce next battleground for China’s nationalists

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Nationalists were trolling in the comment sections of livestream sessions selling products by Li-Ning, Adidas and other brands.

Collage: Weibo, Bilibili

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While China continues to respond to the catastrophic flooding that has killed 99 and displaced 1.4 million people in the central province of Henan, a large group of trolls was busy doing something else: harassing ordinary sportswear sellers on China's livestream ecommerce platforms. Why? Because they determined that the brands being sold had donated too little, or too late, to the people impacted by floods.

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