What Twitter's Preference for Ted Cruz With Big Anime Boobs Says About AI Bias

Twitter's cropping feature prefers white faces over black faces, fat Pikachu over skinny Pikachu, and Rachel Dolezal over Obama.
September 23, 2020, 5:31pm
Senator Ted Cruz with anime titties.
Image Source: Jeff from Regina

People on Twitter discovered some weirdness with how the platform's algorithm crops pictures. Not only does it appear to privilege white faces over darker skinned faces most of the time, it also privileges anime tiddies over, uh, not that.

Over the weekend, someone on Twitter was talking about a different racist AI problem and then ran headlong into a new one. While discussing how Zoom erased his darker skinned colleague's head when using a virtual background, instead thinking a large globe in the background was his head, this person learned that when presented with images that include a white face and a darker skinned face, Twitter focuses and only displays the white face unless you click on and expand the image. 

It's such an easy experiment that it wasn't long until multiple people were trying out different images of black and white people and seeing what Twitter cropped the image to show. Overwhelmingly, it chose white faces. Chief design officer Dantley Davis tweeted about the issue, saying that Twitter would look into it and that he was "as irritated about it as everyone else." Twitter spokesperson Liz Kelley told Gizmodo that the algorithm was bias tested before it shipped, but that Twitter would continue to work on it and open source its results for review. Kelley also told Motherboard that Twitter is continuing to investigate the issue and hope to share more soon. But between Sunday and now, things got weirder.

As people online are wont to do, they took this idea to its logical extreme. If Twitter prefers white faces over black faces, what else does it prefer over black faces? Piccolo's ass? The answer may surprise you.

Okay well, which version of Pikachu does twitter prefer? Fat Pikachu, apparently, meaning this algorithm isn't totally worthless.

How about Barack Obama versus Rachel Dolezal? Brace yourself for this result.

The best possible version of this meme, though, has to be this version, which features a picture of Senator Ted Cruz looking as normal as is possible for him, and a picture of Ted Cruz with comically large anime tiddies. Guess which Twitter likes better.

This kind of joke wouldn't be possible if the general usership of Twitter had any idea how it works, but they don't. No one really does. I've never really thought about how Twitter crops photos until I was made aware of this issue, but as we've seen countless times before, code is written by people who impart their own biases into it. Until Twitter explains what exactly is going on here, people have to treat this algorithm as if it is making its own choices, and has its own preferences. Just like any sufficiently advanced technology feels like magic, an insufficiently explained algorithm feels like it has its own personality, rather than the combined knowledge and biases of its creators. 

Gaining insight into how Twitter crops images will be incredible, because so much of our lives are ruled by these invisible algorithms that we don't really understand. Twitter engineers who bias tested this algorithm didn't understand why it was biased towards white faces; what chance does your average person on Twitter have? Across all the social media apps I use, choices are being made for me in ways I am disincentivized from thinking about. Facebook may serve me only the updates that get me the most mad, but why in that order, and from those users? Instagram shows me updates from my friends in a way that feels random, and also lists the people who watch my Instagram Stories as chosen by an algorithm, not by how close I am to them or how much I look at their stories. TikTok's "For Your Page" feature, the landing page that shows you algorithmically chosen videos that you might like, is so specific that it knows I'm more interested in content from South Indian creators than North Indian creators. How it knew that is a mystery to me. It's not like I emailed TikTok to tell them that my mom is from Andre Pradesh, but the telegu tag is all over my For Your Page.

These jokes on, and experiments with, Twitter's cropping algorithm are an expression of frustration with how little we know about these platforms that dominate much of our lives. An obvious solution to this cropping issue would be to let users crop images themselves. At least, it would remove one way that Twitter makes choices for us that it doesn't tell us about.