February 2, 2021

Fact-checkers were diplomatic in their skepticism of Twitter’s announcement last week that it would be piloting a new feature to crowdsource verified information on the platform –– Birdwatch. The program, currently only available in the U.S., allows users to flag and then provide context to tweets perceived as misleading.

“In theory, a bold move. But that depends on how it’s implemented,” tweeted Peter Cunliffe-Jones, a senior adviser to the International Fact-Checking Network. “Saying you are handing decisions to ‘the community’ sounds good, but agreeing what is and isn’t misinformation isn’t easy — even in just one community.”

Others were more blunt.

“I truly hope this isn’t yet another in a long line of failed experiments that’s based on people fact-checking in their spare time, for free,” tweeted PolitiFact editor-in-chief Angie Holan.

In a blog post, Twitter head of product Keith Coleman said the company conducted “more than 100 qualitative interviews with individuals across the political spectrum who use Twitter.” Coleman said this group expressed support for the program and for the idea these notes be sourced from the broader Twitter community rather than the company or central authority.

However, Natália Leal, head of content at the Brazilian fact-checking outlet Agencia Lupa, worried this framing by Twitter places fact-checkers in opposition to the platforms and risks exacerbating the misperception that fact-checkers promote ideology rather than present objective truth.

“There is a difference between pointing out ‘the truth,’ which is a philosophical concept, and pointing out ‘true information,’ which can be done based on objective data and facts,” Leal said. She argued that professional fact-checkers have the experience and skillset to research and present this “true information,” and worried this won’t be the case for those participating in Birdwatch.

“Fact-checkers don’t want any kind of monopoly on the discussions that may come up on platforms like Twitter,” Leal said. “But in the case of pointing out true information or not, it seems to me that fact-checkers have more technical knowledge to do this than ordinary users.”

Paweł Terpiłowski, chief editor of the Polish fact-checking organization Demagog, worried about the potential for organized groups to co-opt Birdwatch and use it to further spread disinformation.

“Especially with coordinated efforts used by anti-vaxxers or alt meds to manipulate health tweets,”  Terpiłowski said. Both he and Leal believe Twitter will eventually need to collaborate with subject matter experts to help its community sort facts from fiction, but neither expected that to happen anytime soon.

Twitter did acknowledge the criticism that Birdwatch could potentially be vulnerable to coordinated disinformation campaigns, however in a tweet from the Birdwatch account, the company said it would be experimenting with combat this including a potential “reputation system.”

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Harrison Mantas is a reporter for the International Fact-Checking Network covering the wide world of misinformation. He previously worked in Arizona and Washington D.C. for…
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