The presidential election is over, but the fight against misinformation continues.
The latest volley in that effort comes from Twitter, which on Monday announced Birdwatch, a pilot project that uses crowdsourcing techniques to fight falsehoods and misleading statements on its service.
The pilot, which is open to about 1,000 users who can apply to be contributors, will allow people to write notes with corrections and accurate information directly into misleading tweets – a method that has the potential to get quality information to people more quickly than traditional fact-checking. Fact checks that are rated by other contributors as high quality may get bumped up or rewarded with greater visibility.
Birdwatch represents Twitter’s most experimental response to one of the biggest lessons that social media companies drew from the historic events of 2020: That their existing efforts to combat misinformation – composed of labeling, fact-checking, and sometimes removing content – were not enough to prevent falsehoods about a stolen election or covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus, from reaching and influencing broad swaths of the population. Researchers who studied enforcement actions by social media companies last year found that fact checks and labels are usually implemented too late, after a post or a tweet has gone viral.
The Birdwatch project – which for the duration of the pilot will function as a separate website – is novel in that it attempts to build new mechanisms into Twitter’s product that foreground fact-checking by its community of 187 million daily users worldwide. Rather than just having users comb through replies to tweets to sift through what’s true or false – or having Twitter employees append a tweet with a label providing additional context – users will be able to click on a separate notes folder attached to a tweet where they can see the consensus-driven responses from the community. Twitter will have a team reviewing winning responses to prevent manipulation, though a major question is whether any part of the process will be automated and therefore more easily gamed.
Crowdsourcing models are as old as the Web itself and are most commonly associated with services such as Wikipedia, Quora, and Reddit. Each of these services has a model where community members and administrators debate content and arrive at a conclusion, with the platform taking a limited curation and policing role. While Wikipedia’s crowdsourced model is viewed as having been effective, Reddit’s has struggled.
The Birdwatch interface may change the look of Twitter, but it draws from a long-standing approach.
Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg have said the best remedy for problematic speech is more conversation and dialogue, rather than a censorship model in which content is removed or covered up. The latter tack, which the companies doubled down on during the election and its aftermath, not only did not make a huge dent in preventing misinformation but it also pushed many Trump supporters and right-leaning users to smaller, ideologically-friendly platforms.
The sense that the tech companies have moved away from their ideals of a big tent for free expression was further solidified when the platforms barred President Donald Trump in the wake of violence at the misinformation-fueled rally at the Capitol this month. Experts have also pointed out that the flurry and pace of labeling, fact-checking and other enforcements is unsustainable for smaller services such as Twitter.