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Twitter introduces Birdwatch: What difference will it make?


Illustration by Greg Storey

July 16, 2021

This past January, Twitter introduced Birdwatch, a new tool that allows community-based censorship of misinformation on the app. 

Birdwatch enables community members to add informative notes to misleading information that they see on Twitter, which will be available on a separate Birdwatch site and eventually directly on Tweets. You can read more about the initiative and future plans here

Twitter is not oblivious to the risks of this sort of tool. They’ve already indicated that they’re giving special priority to manipulation resistance efforts throughout the pilot development process

You’ll be able to follow the progress being made on the @Birdwatch account

My opinion? While I’m a big fan of community introspection, I am curious to see just how effective this will end up being. I feel like I scroll endlessly through people on Twitter who are already fact-checking each other, but what’s really interesting about that back-and-forth is that there is very rarely any recognition of objectivity. If someone is able to prove another user wrong, they are immediately patronized for their choice of source, decried as a believer of propaganda or simply called a liar.

So, I’m wondering what adding Birdwatch as an additional player in the medium really contributes to the discourse, aside from making conflicting fact-checks more apparent in a single Tweet and saving the argument-readers like me a few hundred scrolls through replies. 

While I, like the Twitter creators themselves, see many potential risks in the idea of allowing the user community to fact-check, I respect that Twitter chose this route as opposed to just creating its own system for doing so as Facebook has.

When a media platform as an entity becomes involved in any sort of fact-sifting or censorship, phrases like “alternative facts” and “liberal/conservative media” almost inevitably make an appearance. Many begin to regard the “truth” as relative at best and manipulated at worse as soon as it starts coming from a “higher” authority than the user themself.

Reading about Birdwatch now, I can’t help but imagine what that would look like on Twitter today in an argument about, for example, the current protests in Cuba. Every time I have logged onto Twitter for the last week, I’ve seen users arguing about whether the Cuban or American government is to blame for the current conflict. Users on both sides of that argument provide ample evidence for their positions already, so again, I wonder what an additional fact-check from those same community members will do to bolster the discussion, assuming both sides would use Birdwatch.

I hope this speculation doesn’t read as disdain. I hope that there’s some real potential for Birdwatch to create a positive grounding point for Twitter users who undeniably, desperately need it. I just can’t fully envision the execution yet, so I’m excited to see how it plays out.

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