Tech

Twitter is guessing users' genders to sell ads and often getting it wrong

Several trans and non-binary users report being misgendered.

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For years, Twitter has allowed users to opt-out of receiving a personalized experience on the platform. Users could completely opt-out, or choose to cherry-pick settings, like allowing the company to infer aspects of their identity. While this is largely framed as a way to serve ads, if users have ad personalization disabled, the feature is meant to surface tweets about their perceived interests, like sports, sourdough starters, or Selina. On Saturday, writer Lee Mandolo discovered the platform also takes a stab at users’ genders which, it should come as little surprise, often results in misgendering.

How to change it — If you go into your Settings and then the Account tab, you can access your Twitter data. You’ll find yet another account tab that will display your gender. Upon inspection, the algorithm categorized this non-binary writer as female. Users can adjust the setting to male, female, or can input a third option of their choice.

Input

In Settings > Content Preferences > Personalization and data, you can toggle specific personalization access, including allowing Twitter to infer your identity. In a deeper dive about inferred identity, Twitter is more concerned with sharing how it's getting this data than explaining what kind of data it’s inferring. The only examples offered are sports — a broad, innocuous interest — and how an interest in it might be inferred from an email address.

A supplemental page for Twitter’s privacy policy finally shares that it guesses at metrics like your age and gender in order to figure out your “legitimate interests”:

“Without these inferences, people would have a harder time finding content that interested them, Twitter would have a more difficult time keeping the platform safe and enjoyable for everyone, and Twitter’s advertising would be less compelling to those who saw it and less valuable to Twitter’s business customers.”

This kind of thinking relies on gendered expectations of habits. While some people may fall into societal gender roles, many people are more complex than that, and any content targeting would benefit more from topics users exhibit an interest in. But then, none of this matters when a company is trying to commoditize you and your actions so sell to advertisers.

Surprise, Twitter doesn’t think about queer people! — Given this is the company that brought us Fleets, and has let various hate groups terrorize marginalized communities for years and even serve hate-laden ads, this news hardly comes as a surprise. It’s almost as though it would be easier for users to self-report gender and pronouns directly on their profiles.

Facebook and Instagram allow users to submit their unique gender info from their profiles and Facebook also supports they / them pronouns. Of course, these are regressive in their own way and haven’t been updated in some time. On Facebook, you can only be attracted to men, women, or both, and Instagram privatizes all gender info.

Twitter is reportedly looking into the auto-gendering algorithm and potentially making self-reported genders and / or pronouns more prominent. Which is probably the smart thing to do. You know you're doing something wrong when Facebook is more progressive than you are.