Why Experts Are Worried About Twitter’s Birdwatch

Social engineering truth

Key Takeaways

  • Twitter recently launched Birdwatch, a new tool to help fight misinformation.
  • All data contributed to Birdwatch will be publicly available to download.
  • Experts are worried that a community-led moderation system could leave too much room for users to game the system.
Closeup of a hand holding a smartphone with the Twitter logo on it, in front a background with the Twitter Bird.
Chesnot / Getty Images

Twitter recently introduced Birdwatch, a new community-based program that aims to let users participate in the fight against misinformation on the social media platform.

As more people become connected, the amount of misinformation and disinformation on the internet continues to grow. Social media websites like Twitter have found themselves constantly fighting with the spread of misinformation, and despite some changes to the system, that fight is far from over.

In response, Twitter has created Birdwatch, a community moderation feature that allows users to flag tweets they believe to be sharing false information. While decentralizing the fight against misinformation might seem like a smart move, some experts are worried about the implications such a tool could bring.

"Misinformation and disinformation is a crisis in the US and abroad, and it’s right that platforms should be taking steps to address it," Lyric Jain, CEO and founder of Logically, told us via email.

"While such initiatives are welcome, democratizing the ability to give feedback on content is very different from a system-level approach taken by the platform itself to rule on what is and is not false, harmful misinformation."

Staying Transparent

One of the more interesting things about Birdwatch is that Twitter appears to be staying transparent with how it’s handling the data generated by users. In the blog post announcing the new feature, Keith Coleman, the company's vice president of product, noted that all data contributed to the Birdwatch program would be available publicly and in downloadable TSV files.

Closeup of two people comparing information on smartphones.
Westend61 / Getty Images

Coleman also mentioned the company is aiming to publish all the code created and developed to power the program. This, Twitter believes, will help allow the experts and researchers, as well as the general public, to see and analyze how things are being handled.

Based on all the information shared by Twitter, it looks like the company is trying to capture the same style of community moderation that has grown and protected Wikipedia over the years.

While this might seem like a good idea on paper, it’s important to remember that users on Wikipedia all share a common interest—sharing knowledge. Unfortunately, Twitter’s community is not as cohesive.

"On the limits of 'content' policy, some asked if we can learn from Wikipedia," Dr. J. Nathan Matias, an assistant professor in the communications department at Cornell University, wrote in a tweet shared earlier in January. "The answer? It's fundamentally different—as a shared resource, it's a 'communal public good.' FB, Twitter, email, Parler are 'connective public goods,' & they work differently."

Yes, Twitter is attempting to stay transparent with Birdwatch, and the ideas currently shown aren’t bad ways to do that. Unfortunately, that transparency won’t stop large groups from massing together and gaming the system if they see a common reason to.

Deciding the Truth

"By decentralizing veracity assessment, the new function helps address claims of institutional and mainstream bias, but it risks being gamed by activists and inauthentic accounts, thereby undermining the assessments of subject matter experts and independent fact-checking organizations." Jain wrote in our email.

Spreading out the assessments of content on platforms like Twitter to a more community approach opens the door for a much faster response than Twitter can provide. The company already admitted that in its introduction to Birdwatch. However, it also opens the door for groups to work together and use that system for their own gain.

Jain isn’t the only person to share those concerns either. Multiple people on Twitter have shared tweets explaining the reasons why they are worried about Birdwatch and the implications it puts on content moderation. 

"Unlike Wikipedia, Twitter is not one cohesive community, and users are not dedicated to a common purpose of sharing knowledge,” Tiffany C. Li, a law professor at Boston University School of Law, wrote in a tweet. "Imagine the harassment and disinfo you already see in replies and QTs, but transposed to a 'fact check' context!"

These are genuine concerns, and ones Twitter will need to properly address if it wants Birdwatch to be successful. Unfortunately, even if the company addresses these concerns, it still needs to ensure the community moderating content with Birdwatch is made up of trustworthy users with the same common goal: the truth.

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