EmTech Stage: Twitter’s CTO on misinformation

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Within the second of two unique interviews, Technology Evaluation’s Editor-in-Chief Gideon Lichfield sat down with Parag Agrawal, Twitter’s Chief Technology officer to debate the rise of misinformation on the social media platform. Agrawal discusses a few of the measures the corporate has taken to combat again, whereas admitting Twitter is making an attempt to string a needle of mitigating hurt brought on by false content material with out changing into an arbiter of reality. This dialog is from the EmTech MIT digital convention and has been edited for readability.

For extra of protection on this matter, take a look at this week’s episode of Deep Tech and our tech policy coverage.


This episode from EmTech MIT was produced by Jennifer Robust and Emma Cillekens, with particular due to Brian Bryson and Benji Rosen. We’re edited by Michael Reilly and Gideon Lichfield.


Robust: Hey everyone it’s Jennifer Robust again with half two of our dialog about misinformation and social media. If Fb is a gathering place the place you go to search out your group, YouTube a live performance corridor or backstage for one thing you’re a fan of, then Twitter is a bit like the general public sq. the place you go to search out out what’s being stated about one thing. However what duty do these platforms have as these conversations unfold? Twitter has stated one in every of its “obligations is to make sure the general public dialog is wholesome”. What does that imply and the way do you measure that? 

It’s a query we put to Twitter’s Chief Technology Officer Parag Agrawal. Right here he’s, in dialog with Tech Evaluation’s editor-in-chief Gideon Lichfield. It was taped at our EmTech convention and has been edited for size and readability.

Lichfield: A few years in the past, there was a undertaking you began speaking about metrics that might measure what a wholesome public dialog is. I have not seen very a lot about it since then. So what is going on on with that? How do you measure this?

Agrawal: Two years in the past in working with truly some of us on the MIT media lab and impressed by the pondering, we set out on a undertaking to work with lecturers outdoors of the corporate, to see if we might outline just a few easy metrics or measurements to point the well being of the general public dialog. What we realized in working with consultants from many locations is that it’s extremely, very difficult to boil down the nuances and intricacies of what we think about a wholesome public dialog into just a few easy to grasp, straightforward to measure metrics you could put your religion in. And this dialog has knowledgeable a change in our method.

What’s modified is whether or not or not we’re prescriptive in making an attempt to boil issues down to a couple numbers. However what’s remained is us realizing that we have to work with educational researchers outdoors of Twitter, share extra of our information in an open-ended setting, the place they’re in a position to make use of it to do analysis, to advance varied fields. Uh, and there are a bunch of API associated merchandise that we’ll be transport within the coming months. And one of many issues that instantly led to that dialog was in April, as we noticed, uh, COVID, uh, we created an finish level for COVID-related dialog that educational researchers might have entry to. Uh, we have seen analysis throughout 4 20 international locations, entry it.

So in some sense, I am glad that we set out on that journey. And I nonetheless maintain out hope that with this open-ended method, there will be lecturers and our collaboration with them, which can in the end lead us to grasp public dialog and wholesome public dialog sufficient to have the ability to boil down the measurement to few metrics. However I am additionally enthusiastic about all the opposite avenues of analysis this method opens up for us. 

Lichfield: Do you have got a way of what an instance of such a metric would appear like?

Agrawal: So after we got down to discuss this, we hypothesized, there have been just a few metrics round, do folks share a way of actuality? Do folks have numerous views and might be uncovered to numerous views? We considered is the dialog civil, proper? So, conceptually these are all properties we want in a wholesome public dialog. The problem lies in with the ability to measure them in a approach that is ready to evolve because the dialog evolves, in a approach that’s dependable and may stand the take a look at of time, because the dialog two years in the past was very totally different from the dialog as we speak. The challenges two years in the past, as we understood them are very totally different as we speak. Uh, and that is the place a few of the challenges and our understanding of what wholesome public group means remains to be emergent for us to have the ability to boil it down into these easy metrics.

Lichfield: Let’s speak a bit of bit about a few of the stuff you’ve finished over the past couple of years. I imply, there’s been plenty of consideration, clearly, on the choices to flag a few of Donald Trump’s tweets. I believe the extra systematic work that you’ve got been doing over the past couple of years in opposition to misinformation, are you able to summarize the details of what you’ve got been doing? 

Agrawal: Our method to it is not to attempt to establish or flag all potential misinformation. However our method is rooted in making an attempt to keep away from particular hurt that deceptive data may cause. We have been centered in our method, and specializing in hurt that may be finished with misinformation round COVID-19, which has to do with public well being, the place just a few folks being misinformed can result in implications on everybody. Equally, we centered in on misinformation round what we name civic integrity, which is about folks being able to know learn how to take part in elections.

So an instance, simply to make this clear, is round civic integrity, we care about and we take motion on content material which could misinform individuals who say it is best to vote on November fifth, when election day is November third. And, we don’t attempt to decide uh what’s true or false when somebody takes a coverage place or when somebody says the sky is purple or blue, or crimson for that matter. Our method for misinformation can be not one which’s centered on taking content material down as the one measure, which is the regime all of us have operated in for a few years. However it’s an more and more nuanced method with a spread of interventions, the place we take into consideration whether or not or not sure content material ought to be amplified with out context, or whether or not it is our duty to offer some context so that folks can see a bunch of data, but in addition have the flexibility and ease to find all of the dialog and context round it, to tell themselves about what they select to imagine in.

Lichfield: How do you consider whether or not one thing is dangerous with out additionally making an attempt to determine whether or not it is true, in different phrases, COVID particularly for instance?

Agrawal: That is a terrific query and I believe in some instances you depend on credible sources to offer that context. So you do not at all times have to find out if one thing is true or false, but when there’s potential for hurt, we select to not flag one thing as true or false, however we select so as to add a hyperlink to credible sources, or to further dialog round that matter, to offer folks context across the piece of content material in order that they are often higher knowledgeable, whilst this information for understanding and information is evolving. And public dialog is essential to that evolution. We noticed folks be taught via Twitter, due to the best way they obtained knowledgeable. And consultants have conversations via Twitter to advance the state of our understanding round this illness as nicely. 

Lichfield: Folks have been warning about QAnon for years. You began taking down QAnon accounts in July. What took you so lengthy? Why did you… what modified in your pondering?

Agrawal: The best way we take into consideration QAnon or we considered QAnon, is we have now a coordinated manipulation coverage that we have had for awhile, and the best way it really works is we work with civil providers and human rights teams throughout the globe in making an attempt to grasp which teams, or which organizations, or what sort of exercise rises to a stage of hurt the place it requires motion from us. In hindsight, I want we’d acted sooner, however since we understood the risk nicely, by working with these teams, we took motion and our actions have concerned form of lowering amplification of this content material and flagging this content material in a approach that led to very speedy lower within the quantity of attain QAnon and associated content material obtained on the platform by over 50%. And since then, we have seen sustained decreases because of this transfer.

Lichfield: I am getting fairly just a few questions from the viewers, that are sort of all asking the identical factor. They usually’re principally asking, nicely, I will learn them. Who will get to determine what’s misinformation? Are you able to give a transparent medical definition of misinformation? Does one thing need to have malicious intent to be misinformation? How are you aware in case your credible sources are truthful, what’s measuring the credibility of these sources and somebody even saying I’ve seen misinformation within the so-called credible sources. So how do you outline that phrase?

Agrawal: I believe that is the, the existential query of our occasions. Defining misinformation is admittedly, actually onerous. As we be taught via time, our understanding of reality additionally evolves. We try to not adjudicate reality, we deal with potential for hurt. And after we say we lean on credible sources, we additionally lean on all of the dialog on the platform that additionally will get to speak about these credible sources and factors out potential gaps because of which the credible sources additionally evolve their pondering or what they discuss.

So, we centered approach much less on what’s true and what’s false. We focus far more on potential for hurt because of sure content material being amplified on the platform with out applicable context. And context is oftentimes simply further dialog that gives a distinct perspective on a subject so that folks can see the breadth of the dialog on our platform and out of doors and make their very own determinations in a world the place we’re all studying collectively.

Lichfield: Do you apply a distinct commonplace to issues that come from world leaders? 

Agrawal: We do have a coverage round public content material within the public curiosity, it is in our coverage framework. So, sure, we do apply totally different requirements. And that is primarily based on the understanding and the information that there is sure content material from elected officers that’s vital for the general public to see and listen to. And that all the content material on Twitter shouldn’t be solely on Twitter. It’s in newsrooms, it’s in press conferences, however oftentimes the supply content material is on Twitter. The general public curiosity coverage exists to guarantee that the supply content material is accessible. We do nonetheless flag very clearly for everybody round when such content material violates any of our insurance policies. We take the daring transfer to flag it, label it so that folks have the suitable context that that is certainly an instance of a violation, so folks can take a look at that content material in gentle of that understanding.

Lichfield: For those who take President Trump, there was a Cornell examine displaying that – they measured that 38% of COVID misinformation mentions him. They known as them the one largest driver of misinformation round COVID. You flagged a few of his tweets, however there’s quite a bit that he places out that does not fairly rise to the strict definition of misinformation, and but misleads folks concerning the nature of the pandemic. So does not this, this exception for public officers, does not it undermine the entire technique?

Agrawal: Each public official has entry to a number of methods of reaching folks. Twitter is one in every of them. We exist in a big ecosystem. Our method in labeling content material truly permits us to, on the supply flag content material, which may probably hurt folks, and in addition present folks further context and extra dialog round it. So plenty of these research and I am not acquainted on the one you cited, are literally broader than Twitter. And if they’re about Twitter, they discuss attain and impressions, with out speaking about folks additionally being uncovered to different bits of data across the matter. Now, we do not get to determine what folks select to imagine, however we do get to showcase content material and a variety of factors of views on any matter, so that folks could make their very own determinations.

Lichfield: That sounds a bit of bit such as you’re making an attempt to say, nicely, it isn’t simply our fault. It is everyone’s fault. And subsequently there’s not a lot we will do about it.

Agrawal: I do not imagine I am saying that. What I am speaking about, the matters of misinformation have at all times existed in society. We at the moment are a essential a part of the material of public dialog, and that is our position on this planet. These are usually not matters we get to extricate ourselves from. These are matters that may stay related as we speak and can stay related in 5 years. I do not reside within the phantasm that we will do one thing that magically makes the deceptive data downside goes away. We do not have that sort of energy or management. And I’d truthfully like not need that energy or management. However we do have the privilege of listening to folks, of getting a various set of individuals on our platform, them expressing a various set of factors of view, the issues that actually matter to everybody, and for us to have the ability to showcase them with the best context in order that society can be taught from one another and transfer ahead.

Lichfield: If you discuss letting folks see content material and draw their very own conclusions or come to their very own opinions, that is the sort of language that’s related to, I believe the best way that social media platforms historically offered themselves. ‘We’re only a impartial house, folks come and use us, we do not attempt to adjudicate’. And it appears a bit of bit at odds with what you have been saying earlier concerning the wanting to advertise a wholesome public dialog, which clearly entails plenty of worth judgments about what’s wholesome. So how are you reconciling these two?

Agrawal: Oh, I am not saying that we’re a impartial get together to this complete dialog. As I stated, we’re essential a part of the material of public dialog. And, you would not need us to be adjudicating what’s true or what is fake on this planet. And truthfully, we can not do this globally in all of the international locations we work in throughout all of the cultures and all of the nuances that exist. We do, nonetheless, have the privilege of getting everybody on the platform with the ability to change issues, to present folks extra management and need to steer the dialog in a approach that it is form of extra receptive and permits extra voices to be heard and for all of us to be higher knowledgeable. 

Lichfield: One of many issues that some observers say you can do that might make an enormous distinction can be to abolish the trending matters function, as a result of that’s the place plenty of misinformation finally ends up getting surfaced. Issues just like the QAnon hashtag save the youngsters, or there was a conspiracy idea about Hillary Clinton staffers rigging the Iowa caucus. Generally issues like that make their approach into trending matters, after which they’ve an enormous affect. What do you concentrate on that?

Agrawal: I do not know in case you noticed it, however simply this week we made a change to how traits and trending matters work on the platform. And one of many issues we did was, we will present context on every little thing that traits, in order that individuals are higher knowledgeable as they see what individuals are speaking about.

Robust: We’re going to take a brief break – however first… I need to counsel one other present I believe you may like. Courageous New Planet weighs the professionals and cons of a variety of highly effective improvements in science and tech. Dr. Eric Lander, who directs the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, explores onerous questions like

Lander: Ought to we alter the Earth’s environment to stop local weather change? And, can reality and democracy survive the impression of deepfakes? 

Robust: Courageous New Planet is from Pushkin Industries. Yow will discover it wherever you get your podcasts. We’ll be again proper after this.


Robust: Welcome again to a particular episode of In Machines We Belief. It is a dialog between Twitter’s Chief Technology Officer Parag Agrawal and Tech Evaluation’s editor-in-chief Gideon Lichfield. In order for you extra on this matter, together with our evaluation, please take a look at the present notes or go to us at Technology Evaluation dot com.

Lichfield: The election clearly may be very shut. And I believe lots of people are asking what will occur notably on election day, as reviews begin to are available from the polls, there’s fear that some politicians are going to be spreading rumors of violence or vote rigging or different, different issues, which in flip might spark demonstrations and violence. And in order that’s one thing that all the social platforms are going to want to react to in a short time in actual time. What is going to you be doing?

Agrawal: We have labored via elections in lots of international locations over the past 4 years. India, Brazil, massive democracies discovered via every of them, and we have been doing work through the years to be higher ready for what’s to come back. Final yr we made a change round coverage to ban all political promoting on Twitter, which was in anticipation of its potential to do hurt. And we wished our consideration to be centered, not on promoting, however on the general public dialog that is taking place organically to have the ability to defend it and enhance it, particularly because it pertains to conversations across the elections.

We did a bunch of labor on expertise to get higher at detecting and understanding state dangerous actors and their makes an attempt to govern elections, and we have been very clear about this. We have made public releases of lots of of such operations from over 10 nations, with tens of hundreds of accounts every and terabytes of knowledge that enable folks outdoors the corporate to research it and perceive the patterns of manipulation at play. And we have gone forward with product modifications to make there be extra consideration and thoughtfulness in how folks share content material and the way folks amplify content material.

So, we have finished a bunch of this work in preparation and thru learnings alongside the best way. To get to a solution about election night time. We have additionally strengthened insurance policies on our civic integrity to not enable anybody, any candidate or anybody throughout all races to have the ability to declare an election when a winner has not been declared. We even have strict measures in place to keep away from incitements of violence. And we have now a workforce prepared, which can work 24/7 to place us in an agile state. 

That being stated, we have finished a bunch of labor to anticipate what might occur, however one factor we all know for certain is what’s more likely to occur shouldn’t be one thing we have precisely anticipated. So what is going on to be vital for us on that night time and past, and even main as much as that point to be ready, to be agile, to reply to the suggestions we have been getting on the platform, to reply to the dialog you see seeing on and off platform, uh, and attempt to do our greatest to serve the general public dialog dialog on this vital time on this nation.

Lichfield: Somebody in, uh, within the viewers requested one thing that I do not suppose you’d comply with, which was, they stated, ought to Fb and Twitter be shut down for 3 days earlier than the election? However possibly a extra modest model of that might be, is there some sort of  content material that you simply suppose ought to be shut down proper earlier than an election?

Agrawal: Simply this week one of many distinguished modifications that’s price speaking about in some element is we made folks have extra consideration, extra thought once they retweet. So as an alternative of with the ability to simply simply retweet content material with out further commentary, we now default folks into including a remark once they retweet. And that is for 2 causes, one so as to add further concerns while you retweet and amplify sure content material and two, to have content material be shared with extra context about what you concentrate on it so that folks perceive why you are sharing it, and what the context across the set of dialog is. We additionally made the traits change which I described earlier. These are modifications which are supposed to have the dialog on Twitter be extra considerate.

That being stated, Twitter goes to be a really, very highly effective software through the time of elections for folks to grasp what’s taking place, for folks to get actually vital data. We have now labels on all candidates. We have now data on the platform about how they’ll vote. We have now real-time suggestions coming from folks everywhere in the nation, telling folks what’s taking place on the bottom. And all of that is vital data for everybody on this nation to concentrate on in that point. It is a second the place every of us is searching for data and our platform serves a very vital position on that day.

Lichfield: You are caught in a little bit of a tough place as any person within the viewers can be declaring, that you simply’re making an attempt to fight misinformation, you additionally need to defend free speech as a core worth, and in addition within the U.S. as the primary modification. How do you steadiness these two?

Agrawal: Our position is to not be sure by the First Modification, however our position is to serve a wholesome public dialog and our strikes are reflective of issues that we imagine result in a more healthy public dialog. The sorts of issues that we do about that is, focus much less on enthusiastic about free speech, however enthusiastic about how the occasions have modified. One of many modifications as we speak that we see is speech is straightforward on the web. Most individuals can converse. The place our position is especially emphasised is who might be heard. The scarce commodity as we speak is consideration. There’s plenty of content material on the market. Numerous tweets on the market, not all of it will get consideration, some subset of it will get consideration. And so more and more our position is transferring in direction of how we advocate content material and that form of, is, is, a wrestle that we’re working via when it comes to how we ensure these suggestion programs that we’re constructing, how we direct folks’s consideration is resulting in a wholesome public dialog that’s most participatory. 

Lichfield: Effectively, we’re out of time, however thanks for actually attention-grabbing perception into how you concentrate on these very difficult points.

Agrawal: Thanks Gideon for having me.


Robust: For those who’d like to listen to our newsroom’s evaluation of this matter and the election… I’ve dropped a hyperlink in our present notes. I hope you’ll test it out. This episode from EmTech was produced by me and by Emma Cillekens, with particular due to Brian Bryson and Benji Rosen. We’re edited by Michael Reilly and Gideon Lichfield. As at all times, thanks for listening. I’m Jennifer Robust.


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