If it seems like you’re seeing more conservative than liberal politicians on your Twitter feed, it’s because you are.
The company released a study last Thursday finding a “statistically significant difference favoring the political right wing,” when it comes to which tweets are amplified. There is nothing more sacred to any social media algorithm than engagement, which means a tweet from Ted Cruz is more likely to come across your timeline than one from Dick Durbin because Twitter thinks you’re more likely to engage with it.
Research published by The Washington Post on Wednesday suggested this could be the case because conservative politicians are far more likely to be “ratio’d” than liberal ones. If a tweet is “ratio’d,” it means it has attracted far more users have replied to it than have liked it or retweeted it. Where as a like or unquoted retweet generally signal an endorsement, replying is the best way for users to mock, bash, or otherwise call out the tweet.
In other words, conservative politicians are getting dunked on at an astonishing clip, and Twitter’s algorithm could be serving you their tweets because it figures you might like to dunk on them, too.
New York University’s Center for Social Media and Politics put together a “ratio score” for every tweet it gathered from American representatives beginning on Jan. 1 of this year. The top two lawmakers with the highest median ratio’d score per tweet are Sens. Kirsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) and Joe Manchin (D-W.V.). Sinema and Machin are both Democrats, but they’ve been lightning rods for controversy all year for stonewalling their own party’s legislation, as well as taking conservative stances on issues like eliminating the filibuster or Supreme Court reform.
The rest of the top 20, however, are all Republicans, with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Me.), Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.), and Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.) rounding out the top 5. “What we found was that on average, the authors of tweets with higher ratios (i.e., tweets that cause more outrage online) are more conservative than the ideology of authors of tweets with lower ratios,” the researchers wrote in The Post. “We used straightforward statistical methods to test whether this relationship was significant, and we found that it was.”
Regardless of the extent to which the “ratio” is the reason Twitter is promoting tweets espousing conservative ideology, it’s probably not healthy for users or for democracy that social media companies are feeding off outrage and indignation.
The Post reported on Tuesday that Facebook, perhaps the most unhealthy thing for people and democracy to come along this century, weighted emotional emoji reactions, including “angry,” five times as valuable as simply liking a post. Facebook’s own researchers raised concerns over assigning so much weight to “controversial” posts, and its own scientists wrote in 2019 that posts that elicited an “angry” reaction, the ones Facebook’s algorithm was designed to amplify, were, as the Post put it, “disproportionately likely to include misinformation, toxicity and low-quality news.”
The same could be said about the kind of ratio-inclined tweets from conservative politicians Twitter has now admitted they’re amplifying.