Age of Information… or Misinformation?

As an avid twitter user since 2012, the platform has always appealed to me providing the candid content Instagram lacks, comic relief, and news updates to keep me informed.  Last Wednesday, when listening to “Up First”, an NPR daily news podcast, they mentioned the launch of the pilot program for a platform called Birdwatch.  The platform is developed by Twitter and has the sole goal of preventing misinformation on Twitter.  As we use Twitter heavily in this class, I decided to take a deeper dive into the recently piloted Birdwatch, and see how Twitter is taking on the massive feat of preventing misinformation.   

Taking on the task of misinformation in today’s society is a prominent, yet tough task. Misinformation via Twitter played a role in inciting violence during the Capitol Riots on January 6th, which led to the suspension of former President Trump’s twitter account. This has sparked tons of controversy for big tech companies who have already been under a microscope.  It seems in Twitter’s best interest to prevent its 192 million daily users from being fed false information to prevent another event like the riots.

What is Birdwatch and how does it work?

Twitter’s platform Birdwatch, still in the pilot stage, only has 1,000 users.  The plan is to eventually build the number of users who they will use to assist them in combating misinformation via Twitter.  Birdwatch users who find tweets they believe to be making false claims or misleading will have the opportunity flag the tweets, and write a note of why they believe that tweet to be misinforming or misleading.  Other users on Birdwatch can then go ahead and rate the “note” or case made about why the tweet was flagged for misinformation.  If the user who flagged the tweet made a compelling case, and their note gets enough upvotes, Birdwatch will see this as a confirmation that the tweet was misinforming, and show the tweet on Twitter with this note of caution.  “Up First” hosts made the point that Birdwatch uses the crowdsourcing aspect of Wikipedia and the up/down voting system of Reddit.  As we have seen in class, when Professor Kane spoke of the speed and accuracy of crowdsourcing on Wikipedia exemplified during the Virginia Tech shootings, these techniques can prove successful, now Twitter will try and leverage them using it’s 192 million users to analyze and audit information. 

Image result for birdwatch twitter
Birdwatch user interface and specs https://media4.s-nbcnews.com/j/newscms/2021_04/3444828/210125-twitter-birdwatch-menu-ew-1236p_3b313c5ae403765680f52a0759edc537.fit-760w.jpg

Possible hurdles

While I hope that this platform takes off and is successful, I do believe that this platform could become ineffective or problematic quickly. Quick disclaimer, my analysis below is based on the most probable scenario in which Birdwatch is integrated, based on comments by Jack Coleman of Twitter. Through my research, it has become clear that since this is only the pilot phase, sources are unsure what the roll out and transition may look like if Twitter moves forward with this integration of Birdwatch into their main platform, but Coleman said, “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”(TechCrunch).

 The first issue is partisan views and opinions.  Misinformation has become such an issue these days because Twitter users don’t agree on a truth.  If you tweet a simple question such as “Who won the presidential election in 2020?”, you would get some replies that state Joe Biden won, and other replies stating Donald Trump won.  The issue stands that everyone who replied sees their answer as the truth. These days is that everyone has their own version of what truth is, and even when backed by facts, that is still not always enough to convince people.  In today’s society, especially exemplified by the 2020 presidential election, we have seen that everyone has a different version of what is the truth to them.

My main worry about the Birdwatch platform is Birdwatchers taking things too far, and constantly having to see notes on opinionated tweets or tweets that may not fit the mold of “proven information”.  If there is a real lie that we are being told by the media or government, Twitter can be a platform of investigation and scrutiny to try and uncover the truth.  If Twitter will move forward to integrate notes into their main platform, it can cause some issues. Controversial tweets are a part of the platform and if Birdwatch is auditing these, those tweets can be flagged and noted fast, possibly bringing little attention or validity to them.  This is a very niche case, but I do believe we have a right to question and entertain all ideas and opinions to a certain degree. One of the issues with social media we see today is only following those with similar views, which plays into our polarization and narrow-mindedness.   Things can also go bad if people that believe one “truth”, can band together to manipulate notes and upvotes on tweets that are fact based and proven.  This could underscore the validity and truthfulness of a tweet that would have otherwise had no reason to be questioned. 

From being a long time twitter user, some of my favorite content has come from comedy and parody accounts.  One of my fear with Birdwatch is the expanse of the audit reaching too far, and becoming almost a waste of time. Coleman, Twitter’s president of product states that they will do their best to only target “circumstances where something breaks our rules or receives widespread attention” (TechCrunch). Below are some examples of outlandish tweets that seem to be common on the platform, and frankly quite funny. As Twitter is a very versatile, these tweets and accounts are far from the informative side of Twitter and provide an outlet that often mocks current events, tv shows, and more.  I often see comedic tweets, such as the one below where some users, mostly of the older generations will miss this point and comment back appalled.  Birdwatch can easily be a platform that does not understand this humor and could lead to many serious notes on tweets that are meant to be funny, and mostly understood in that manner.  I understand that Twitter is crowdsourcing Birdwatch, and this solution could help, but it will also be interesting to see the demographic of users Birdwatch attracts.   If older Twitter users use the app for news, they may care more about misinformation and stopping it, therefore engaging in Birdwatch and possibly add notes to every funny tweet on my feed they took too seriously. Since it seems as if these misinformation notifications are just “notes” and Twitter is unsure if it will integrate them into their main platform, it may not be the end of the world, but as further discussed I do think that the user interface and user-ability of the app may suffer as a result.

A comedy account making an outlandish joke aimed at the pardons of former President Trump, via Twitter
Ned Bigby, a fictional character from Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide

User Interface & Looking into the Future

Another aspect I am interested to see the result of is the new user interface.  Although I do believe Twitter has a strong enough base to not lose much traction with the roll out of notes, it will be interesting to see how they adapt the user interface to make sure that it is not an information overload, and does not confuse users even more.  I think that this feature will have to be rolled out very carefully to be successful. This feature if taken out of hand could lead to even more confusion on what is real and fact based and what is not.

I am interested to see the rollout of Birdwatch, and think this warrants bigger questions that are lingering around technology ethics and if big tech companies should be responsible for the misinformation they spread or the harm done by users via their platform.  It should be interesting to see how policy and government adapts over the next few years as technology becomes increasingly prominent. As discussed in “Gin, Television, and Cognitive Surplus”, this could either be a great use of our surplus time, or a great waste of it.

8 comments

  1. abigailholler1 · ·

    Very informative post! I am a new user to twitter (as of about a week ago!), and I can attest that in past years the reputation for Twitter and other social media platforms fostering miss-information was a key barrier from joining the platform. It’s almost surprising that it took this long for Twitter to add a Birdwatch equivalent function into their platform. I agree with your point – it’s a bit of a grey area when it comes to what is considered ‘fact’ by opposing parties, couldn’t almost every tweet become an existential argument of fact and fiction?

    Another quite surprising element of a Birdwatch function: I believe Twitter could stand to actually lose more credibility by staking accuracy of controversial tweets. I definitely do not like the miss-information on Twitter and agree it is totally counterproductive; but part of the charm of twitter is it’s free and open platform, right? The minute they start to police content, they could be subject to further scrutiny over their underlying incentives to, for example, favor a political party or business competitor. I’d be curious to understand how they’ve quantified this tradeoff, and if they are worried about losing users in response to Birdwatch.

  2. ritellryan · ·

    I find this very interesting and the Wiki example is exactly what I thought of when I first started reading. I think this will be a challenge mostly because of the notion of “alternative facts”. The first 10ish paragraphs of the article below have always stuck in my mind because it proves the idea of a narrative being pushed by a media outlet, and it is really up to the individual to seek out both sides if they want the TRUTH. Obviously, fantasy football doesn’t have the same stakes as something in the political arena, but it would be naive to think this doesn’t happen there as well.

    I think it is a valiant attempt by Twitter to try to address some of the concerns people have engaging with the platform (and to get ahead of Washington coming down on them, Facebook, et al for allowing misinformation to be spread on their platform), but like you alluded to, it might get really ugly as people upvote and downvote tweets just to push an agenda, instead of allowing users to gather information from different sources to discern what the truth is ourselves.

    https://www.espn.com/fantasy/football/story/_/id/27054210/100-facts-2019-fantasy-football-season

  3. Great post! I’m glad you were able to join the class. Where I am concerned about misinformation online going forward is that a) people seem to actively want misinformation if it supports their worldviews. It’s sort of a super-charged confirmation bias. b) we now have powerful groups manufacturing that misinformation to push particular agendas. Taken together, it is a challenge for these types of crowdsourced groups to function effectively. We’ll be discussing these issues in greater depth in a few weeks.

  4. AndraeAllen · ·

    Great post Oliva! For the longest time, I have wondered how does Twitter make money? Shortly after activating my account for usage in this class, I quickly learned that it’s the same revenue stream as Google and Facebook (Advertisements). We use their platform they show us ads.

    Regarding your post, I agree that Twitter is taking on a considerable challenge. I think the question we should focus on is how they will define success. Will it be stopping 10% of all misinformation (even the ones intended as jokes) or just flagging the stories significant enough to cause riots.

  5. sayoyamusa · ·

    Very insightful post! Thank you for sharing Birdwatch.
    Your thoughts on crowdsourcing are a great reminder of the lessons we’ve learned in the previous class. I wonder if Twitter community fulfills four requirements of wise crowds: diversity, independence, decentralization, and aggregation. Maybe it does…? but another thing I’ve found relevant here is Twitter’s anonymity, which is kind of a double-edged sword. You can freely tweet anything you want including funny jokes (by the way, you really look a sophisticated Twitter user!) but at the same time, it allows people to post “fake” tweets irresponsibly. Twitter seems to face difficult challenges of balancing act.

  6. lisahersh · ·

    Thanks for posting this, Olivia! Even though I’m a newly minted Twitter user, seeing how it (and other platforms) increases the spread of misinformation is pretty scary. I think your post is a good complimentary piece to Connor’s post as well. I love the idea of drawing on the wisdom of crowds to combat misinformation, but its potential to lead to unwarranted censorship due to groupthink, confirmation biases, and a lack of diversity/independence in those reviewing the content is worrisome. I don’t think there’s been a “grand solution” to deal with these issues to date (or if it’s even possible to given that individuals are entitled to believe something even if it is factually incorrect – or correct according to their own definition of “facts”) but I’m interested in seeing the solutions social media sites implement as they try to take a stand in curtailing the spread of misinformation on their platforms.

  7. Divya Jha · ·

    Olivia, this is an interesting post to me because I’m a fairly new Twitter user as well. Finding real-time news and updates on Twitter is one of the major reasons people use the platform (other than the funny tweets, I’m with you on that). I can see why Twitter is attempting to use Birdwatch, given the backlash it has been facing over allowing the spread of misinformation. While I understand that crowdsourcing might bring in ‘objectivity’, I do think that curbing the spread of misinformation on its platform is Twitter’s responsibility – perhaps, they should set up a team/ use AI to do that in the longer run..

  8. This is so interesting! I had never heard of Birdwatch and your post certainly made me curious! I also appreciate your analysis of what the “truth” really is. We are being bombarded with so many different versions of the truth that it sometimes feels like truth is actually subjective. I agree with your take on what will become true as I believe a lot of us, unconsciously or not, end up searching for confirmations on our biases. In any case, Birdwatch is certainly a tool to watch and learn about.

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