News Analysis Jan 25, 2021 7:20 PM EST

After a string of censorship scandals, Twitter launches 'birdwatch' initiative to combat 'misinformation'

Twitter announced a new plan to manage disinformation and misinformation on the site. They're calling it Birdwatch.

After a string of censorship scandals, Twitter launches 'birdwatch' initiative to combat 'misinformation'
Libby Emmons Brooklyn, NY
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After a tumultuous fall during which Twitter brazenly censored American news outlets, pundits, and Trump supporters, the social media platform announced a new plan to manage disinformation and misinformation on the site. They're calling it Birdwatch.

"Introducing Birdwatch, a community-based approach to misinformation," Keith Coleman, Vice President, Product, writes on Twitter's blog. Coleman writes that "Birdwatch allows people to identify information in Tweets they believe is misleading and write notes that provide informative context. We believe this approach has the potential to respond quickly when misleading information spreads, adding context that people trust and find valuable. Eventually we aim to make notes visible directly on Tweets for the global Twitter audience, when there is consensus from a broad and diverse set of contributors."

Twitter's announcement via video shows how a false claim, in this case the claim that "whales are not real" but "robots funded by the government," can go viral in minutes and can change the narrative about, in this case, whales. Then they say that "You can't trust everything you see online," and that this is why they're "introducing Birdwatch."

The way it works is that a user can "create notes" and give additional contents. This can be done by clicking on the options for the tweet, and selecting "Contribute to Birdwatch." There's then a selection of options where users can select the reason why "this Tweet may be misleading?"

Those options are: "it contains a factual error' it contains a digitally altered photo or video, it contains outdated information that may be misleading, it is a misrepresentation or missing important context, it presents an unverified claim as fact, it is a joke or satire that might be misinterpreted as fact, or other." More than one option can be selected.

The user is then delivered to a next screen, that gives the user additional options to report the tweet. It reads "If many believed this Tweet, it might cause," either "little harm" or "considerable harm." What is meant by the word harm is not defined in any capacity.

The user is then asked to "explain the evidence behind" the choices made, "to help others who see this Tweet understand what might be misleading or harmful about it." 280 characters can then be written in defense of the claim that the tweet is harmful in some undefined way.

The "note" will then appear on the original tweet, and other users will be able to select options as to whether the note was "helpful" or not, and asks if "you agree with the note's conclusion." The video states "Together, we can keep each other better informed."

It seems that Twitter believes that mass sourcing of reality is what makes reality real. Twitter is looking for people to sign on to do this work, saying "We’re looking for people to test this out in the US –– you can add notes with helpful context to Tweets that you think are misleading. For now, these notes won’t appear directly on Twitter, but anyone in the US can view them at: https://birdwatch.twitter.com."

"We'll use the notes and your feedback to help shape this program and learn how to reach our goal of letting the Twitter community decide when and what context is added to a Tweet."

At first, Birdwatch will be in the testing phase, and will be brought on to the main platform once Twitter is satisfied with the program's effectiveness. As they work to get it right, Twitter wants there to be a community of "Birdwatchers" who flag and make notes about tweets. However, these users won't be required to actually prove that they know anything about the tweets that they report as harmful.

"We know there are a number of challenges toward building a community-driven system like this—from making it resistant to manipulation attempts to ensuring it isn't dominated by a simple majority or biased based on its distribution of contributors. We'll be focused on these things throughout the pilot," Coleman wrote.

Twitter has been under constant scrutiny throughout 2020, when the platform began to take seriously what they believed was their obligation to make sure that which was being tweeted about essential subjects, such as coronavirus, the climate, racism, and the election were accurate. However, Twitter often made claims that certain information was disinformation without providing evidence that it was disinformation or misinformation.

Yet, by May, the site was labeling tweets that contained "conspiracy theories," such as those about the origin of the coronavirus, potential treatments, etc. They tagged tweets that talked about the origin of the virus having been in the Wuhan Virology Lab, though the US State Department recently released a memo stating that there was reason to believe that the virus began in the Wuhan Virology Lab.

Twitter labeled President Trump's tweet often, as well as information and suppositions about the election. In the lead up to the American presidential election, Twitter blocked, banned, and suppressed reporting on President Biden's son, his shady foreign business dealings, and allegations of influence peddling. Twitter labeled 300,000 tweets that were "disputed and potentially misleading" in the weeks before the election.

Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was called before the Senate to testify as to why he believed his platform was the arbiter of truth and labeled, censored, and suppressed information without providing any evidence as to why it was believed to be false. It seemed clear that Twitter took as gospel the word of some biased news outlets while questioning the reporting of sites that had a more conservative bent.

According to NBC, "Twitter heavily focused on the threat of 'manipulation' by what it calls 'swarms' of bad actors, who may seek to use the platform as another weapon in online information wars."

Another aspect of the Birdwatch program is that it will be possible to researchers and users to download the bulk data on Birdwatch notes, and then analyze that. So, in short, self-designated Birdwatchers will be able to label tweets as "harmful," add notes as to what they believe makes them harmful, that information will then be seen on the original tweet, and then the information that Birdwatchers post will be able to be analyzed. Birdwatch is like a game of telephone among drunk teenagers in a speeding car on an icy highway.

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