Katy Perry. Donald Trump. Kim Kardashian. Madeleine Albright. Bryce Harper. Taylor Swift. John Kerry. Ariana Grande.
It might go down as the most name-dropped four minutes of Jeff Duncan’s political career — but one he used to make a point on Wednesday to Jack Dorsey, chairman and CEO of Twitter who spent the day testifying in front of the House, Energy and Commerce Committee.
“A member of my staff recently created a ‘test Twitter’ account on a communications project unrelated to this topic and even before we knew this hearing was going to take place,” said Duncan, R-3rd District. “They were interested to know who was listed on the suggestions for who to follow.”
Using just an email account and 202 area code — the prefix for Washington, D.C. — Duncan said Twitter’s algorithms returned only the names of left-leaning politicians and journalists Duncan said exhibited liberal leanings, including NBC’s Chuck Todd and Jim Acosta, of CNN.
“Where’s Bryce Harper? Where’s Ovechkin? Where are the Capitals? Where are the Nats? Where’s DC United? Where are the sports teams?” Duncan said. “If you’re going to use 202 area code as your filter, where are those folks? There were only suggested political figures of a liberal persuasion to follow. nobody else. That shows bias, sir.”
Dorsey spent the day on Capitol Hill alongside Facebook executives, assuring lawmakers that the social media giants are taking aggressive steps to safeguard their platforms against foreign intervention and downplaying accusations of partisan bias.
“It takes years to build trust, but it only takes 280 characters to lose it. It is critical that you are living up to your own promises and the expectations you set out for consumers. According to Twitter’s rules, the company believes ‘that everyone should have the power to create and share ideas and information instantly, without barriers,’” committee chairman Greg Walden, R-Oregon, said in opening remarks.
Dorsey told Duncan that his staff member’s suggested followers likely were generated simply by the most active accounts in the 202 region, a formula that could change in real-time as the user began to interface with Twitter.
“We do have a lot more work to do in our onboarding, and obviously you’re pointing out some weaknesses in our signals we use to craft those recommendations, so if she were to start following particular accounts or engaging with particular tweets, that model would completely change, based on those,” Dorsey said. “It sounds like we’re not being exhaustive enough with the one piece of information we do have.”
Duncan balked at that, pointing to the celebrity accounts he mentioned and that of President Donald Trump — one of Twitter’s most prolific users.
“This is a pro-life Congressional staffer whose search history on a work computer definitely doesn’t lean left,” Duncan said. “It’s one thing not to promote conservatives even though Donald Trump is truly the most successful Twitter user in the history of the site. Say what you want about what he tweets, but president Trump has utilized Twitter in unprecedented ways to get around the traditional news media.”
Trump is the 17th most followed Twitter user, with 54.4 million followers. That’s just behind Twitter itself and ahead of “CNN Breaking News.” Former President Barack Obama has the third most followers, at 101 million, while pop star Perry sits atop all with 106 million followers.
“I would think that someone in your position would be celebrating that and him, rather than trying to undermine him, so how do you explain she only gets those liberal suggestions,” Duncan said.
Dorsey acknowledged the complaint after Duncan asked whether a separate person, setting up a Twitter account today from a D.C.-based area code, would get a different list of suggested followers than his staffer.
“That is not a good outcome for us,” Dorsey said.