Birdwatch can’t solve social media misinformation
Image by Mylene2401 from Pixabay

Birdwatch can’t solve social media misinformation

In response to criticism of its moderation policies around election misinformation, Twitter has announced a new project: Birdwatch, a “community-based approach to misinformation.”

People come to Twitter to stay informed, and they want credible information to help them do so. We apply labels and add context to Tweets, but we don’t want to limit efforts to circumstances where something breaks our rules or receives widespread public attention. We also want to broaden the range of voices that are part of tackling this problem, and we believe a community-driven approach can help. That’s why today we’re introducing Birdwatch, a pilot in the US of a new community-driven approach to help address misleading information on Twitter.

Twitter will now let certain users add notes and other data to Tweets. Example data provided by the company (login required) suggests that participants will be able to classify a quote (“Misinformed or Potentially Misleading” is the example given), how believable it is (Believable by Many), how harmful it is (Little Harm), how difficult it is to validate (Easy or Challenging) and classify as satire, missing important context, outdated but not when written, personal opinion and a few other options.

The requirements for joining Birdwatch are a verified email address, verified phone number, trusted U.S.-based phone carrier and having two-factor authentication on your account. I tried to sign up for Birdwatch to check out the interface, but was rejected because I was recently suspended for insulting Qanon qultists.

Twitter logo
Unfortunately, Birdwatch is not available to you at this time
To join the Birdwatch pilot program, your Twitter account must have:

checkmark A verified email address
checkmark A verified phone number
checkmark A trusted U.S.-based phone carrier
checkmark Two-factor authentication enabled
red x icon No recent notice of Twitter Rules violations
The Birdwatch requirements.

Other users on Twitter have posted step two of the application process, which requires the user to “Contribute to building understanding”, “Act in good faith”, “Be helpful, even to those who disagree.” The applicant must check the box next to each of these items.

The Birdwatch values are nothing more than feel-good guidelines that participants will either willfully ignore or simply feel that they are upholding with their own bias.

Content moderators remain vulnerable

Conversations about Birdwatch and social media content in general must always include acknowledgement about the content moderators.

These workers are often low-paid contractors in India, Manila and some in the United States who see the worst of the worst on the Internet: child pornography, suicides, gore and more. They must use a byzantine set of rules that sometimes differ by country to decide within moments whether a post or image is in violation of the terms of service. Their performance is reviewed frequently.

According to an investigative article in the Washington Post, the “14 current and former moderators in Manila described a workplace where nightmares, paranoia and obsessive ruminations were common consequences of the job.”

Birdwatch will not replace these moderators. Their jobs will continue to subject them to dangerous working conditions that cause PTSD and worse, with no real support from the companies they work for or the social networks that contract them.

Behold the hivemind

The example Tweet in Birdwatch’s promotional materials claims that a mayor has chosen to convert water fountains from still water to sparkling. It’s a silly example purposely chosen by Twitter to avoid difficult questions and consequences. Yes, it is “Misinformed or potentially misleading” and “believable by many” with the risk of “little harm” (unless you really dislike sparkling water).

Consider a post by a popular account suggesting that a mayor’s office was adding extra fluoride to a public water source. Mind control or tranquilizing effects of fluoridated water is one of the most common conspiracy theories, almost a gateway to others. How would such a demonstrably false post be treated by Twitter users? Those who rightly don’t believe the claim will add their notes, as you’d expect. It is false, dangerous and for some easily believable. True believers will claim that any note added is censorship of “the truth.” Very few people, if anyone, will be swayed.

Now apply that to a tweet about trans people, abortion, the Black Lives Matter movement or immigration. If you’ve ever been on a site like reddit, you’ve seen the hivemind effect: Popular opinions in a given forum are upvoted, unpopular opinions are downvoted. Early posts get the most attention and rise to the top based on these actions. Users who go against the grain will often leave to create their own forums (called subreddits) where they can implement their own rules and promote their beliefs. This happens not only to the most extreme of conspiracy theorists, but with general, default subreddits like r/politics.

A social media problem

Psychologists point to three main reasons that people believe in conspiracy theories and misinformation in general:

  1. The need to reduce uncertainty and make sense of the world.
  2. The need to feel safe and in control.
  3. The need to cultivate a good self-image.

Points 1 and 2 are particularly interesting. The 24-hour news cycle, fast propagation of information via social media and the increasing instability and crises of capitalism lead to people questioning how they got into the situation. It becomes reassuring to believe that something outside of their control like the “deep state” or alien overlords is the root cause (point 1), that they can take steps to keep themselves and their families safe, like avoiding fluoridated water (point 2) and finally that they’re part of an “in-crowd” which knows something the rest of us don’t (point 3).

Social media fact-checking won’t address this. “False information” labels and Birdwatch won’t convince anyone who doesn’t already believe it that fluoridation is safe and Biden won the election. The roots that lead people to these beliefs must be addressed at the social level, though public wellness and education and a political and economic system that actually gives a damn about the people.