Twitter is continuing its drive towards bringing the platform in line with what its most vocal users have been clamoring for, with the introduction of the Birdwatch fact checker.
The program is in its pilot phase right now, and is limited to US users only, but once it's ready to take flight, it'll be reliant on the Twitter community to essentially moderate Tweets they believe to be misinformation.
Birdwatch will avoid flagging the content of Tweets as simply 'true' or 'false', with the company explaining that contentious Tweets will be given further context instead, with notes that are in "the community’s voice" rather than having Twitter act as the central authority. Twitter explains its logic, saying:
"We believe this approach has the potential to respond quickly when misleading information spreads, adding context that people trust and find valuable."
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🐦 Today we’re introducing @Birdwatch, a community-driven approach to addressing misleading information. And we want your help. (1/3) pic.twitter.com/aYJILZ7iKBJanuary 25, 2021
In the first phase of the pilot, notes will only be available on the Birdwatch site, where the notes themselves are also being rated for how helpful they are by other contributors, in some kind of bird-cetpion scheme.
Twitter will finally merge the feature with main site when it's confident that Birdwatch "produces context people find helpful and appropriate." The platform insists that notes will not have an effect on "the way people see Tweets" or how the system continues to make its user recommendations.
While reception to the program has been mixed, with some people feeling positive about the fact that Twitter is finally taking steps to properly moderate its platform, this seems like a giant misstep.
Twitter is once again attempting to walk the line of keeping everyone happy, which will inevitably make no one happy. It claims to have "conducted more than 100 qualitative interviews with [Twitter users] across the political spectrum" from whom it received "broad general support" for Birdwatch.
Anyone can sign up to the pilot to contribute their notes, and Twitter is aiming for transparency, from having the contributed data publicly available and downloadable in TSV files, while the algorithm code is publicly available in its Birdwatch Guide. Twitter says it hopes this "will enable experts, researchers, and the public to analyze or audit Birdwatch, identifying opportunities or flaws that can help us more quickly build an effective community-driven solution."
As great as it is to see Twitter finally making moves to moderate the platform (and ignoring the criticism that it's so late to the party that the lights are out and everyone's gone home), this doesn't sound like the solution.
Leaving it to the community, and its inevitable user biases, is going to open the doors for a free-for-all. Who moderates the moderators? At what point do the notes on the notes require notes? The system seems open to abuse by trolls, as well as vulnerable to being easily skewed by user bias.
It's a convoluted and lazy way to circumvent an in-house solution. The list of pre-requisites to apply for Birdwatch boil down to having a Twitter account with no recent rule violations. More worryingly, to promote transparency, any and all contributions to Birdwatch are "publicly visible on the Birdwatch site, even if an account’s Tweets are protected", as Twitter highlights.
Given the rampant harassment that plagues the platform, this is yet another fly in the ointment of the entire process.
Twitter needs to make up its mind on what it wants from its platform, and employ a dedicated team to take on the task of flagging misinformation, with the appropriate experts; not outsource to its user base.
We'll have to see how the pilot pans out – it may be that it's a rousing success! Or it could go down like a bird that hopped out of the nest a little too soon.