Twitter Birdwatch: Can user-generated moderation work?

12 Feb 2021

Image: © Ammit/

Declan Burrowes asks if Twitter’s new ‘moderation by masses’ tool can be fair and transparent, or if it will place too much power in the hands of an elite few.

After years of uncomfortable government scrutiny, outrageous clashes with a sitting US president, and difficult philosophical soul-searching on the nature (and potential boundaries) of free speech, Twitter is trialling a new community moderation feature, Birdwatch, that gives users the power to flag and contextualise potentially misleading content.

With Birdwatch, which is currently in closed beta on a standalone site, pilot users can flag contentious tweets by submitting clarifying notes and rating the helpfulness of notes left by others. Twitter claims that once there is “consensus from a broad and diverse set of contributors”, community-written notes will eventually be visible to the public directly on tweets.

All this data will be downloadable. Furthermore, as the Birdwatch algorithm is developed, Twitter aims to publish the code, so theoretically anyone will be able to investigate allegations of bias or tampering.

At surface level, Twitter’s attempt at creating a less monolithic and more transparent way of moderating content appears useful and progressive. While the real-world repercussions of ‘fake news’ may be overstated, it is self-evident that in a time where mass communications can be carried out virtually instantaneously – without a sense-checking authority or, at the very least, an ‘Are you really sure you want to post this?’ button – there is always potential for misunderstanding, obfuscation and even worse.

But making Birdwatch work won’t be easy, and there is still much that we don’t know about how it will ultimately function. For example, how much content moderating power will Twitter be ceding to its community? How much will it retain, and will it be able to intervene in Birdwatch disputes at its own discretion? Once the closed beta test is over, will anyone be able to become a Birdwatcher?

How these questions are answered will determine whether the tool will work as intended – fairly and transparently – or as a pragmatic power transfer from an embattled Silicon Valley to a zealous neighbourhood watch.

Will Twitter succeed where others have failed?

Following the Birdwatch announcement last month, one Forbes writer described it as a “Wikipedia-style approach” to the fight against misinformation, alluding to that site’s (frequently criticised) reliance on community volunteers to write, edit and fact-check articles.

But what the writer failed to mention is that Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales actually did attempt his very own ‘Wikipedia for journalism’ in 2017. Wikitribune retained a small team of professional journalists who wrote articles that were then fact-checked, edited and updated in real time by community volunteers. The site was, in Wales’ own words, a fix for “broken” journalism that would, through a combination of journalistic expertise and constant community dialogue, get to the essential, immutable truth of a story.

Wikitribune never really took off and petered out completely a year later. Part of the problem was that only an extremely small number of time-rich Wikitribune evangelists, who had their own narrow interests, were willing to put the effort into fact-checking and editing. This influential minority allegedly caused editorial issues and the Times reported that “many also detected a liberal bias” on the site.

This may be a problem for Twitter, too. VP of product Keith Coleman acknowledged that ensuring Birdwatch “isn’t dominated by a simple majority or biased by its distribution of contributors” will be difficult, even “messy”.

The way in which social networks are structured and grow means that isolated bubbles, which are typically impervious to different opinions and viewpoints, are common and perhaps inevitable.

In Twitter’s case, 60pc of adult users in the US identify as a Democrat or lean Democrat, compared to 52pc of the US general population. Just 35pc identify as Republican or lean Republican, compared to 43pc of the general population. Furthermore, 92pc of all tweets posted by US users between November 2019 and October 2020 were posted by just 10pc of users, according to the Pew Research Center. If Twitter wants to avoid Wikitribune’s fate, it will have to carefully consider how to avoid content moderation power permanently, and unfairly, coalescing in the hands of the top 10pc.

The perils of publishing

Social networks, whether they like it or not, have become content publishers. They give billions the means to project opinions and influence other people, frequently at uncontrollable speeds. One only has to look at the recent GameStop saga to see how discussion in a Reddit forum led to Wall Street panic and White House consternation in less than two weeks.

It is hardly surprising, then, that many politicians, including Irish TDs, have called for all manner of state interventions into internet affairs, including public oversight of social networks, fines for platforms that are slow to take down illegal or offensive content, and even the dismantling of larger conglomerates like Facebook.

Twitter’s stance has hardened considerably over time, particularly since 2016, and not without confusing many of its users in the process. What qualifies as acceptable content has changed, reversed, changed back, and been generally poorly communicated. This has led to mystifying, even mysterious, deletions, suspensions and reinstatements, which in turn have led to repeated accusations of bias and even active censorship.

While Birdwatch might not put an end to Twitter’s often confusing and cack-handed attempts at moderation, transparent discussion between users may at the very least help to explain the rationale that determines which content is flagged or deleted. (Whether that rationale will be acceptable to offending tweeters is another matter entirely.)

Indeed, the creation of Birdwatch may be more shrewd move than benevolent crusade against fake news. By ceding degrees of content moderation to the userbase in a transparent or otherwise ‘fair’ way, Twitter might be able to avoid continuous accusations of incompetence, uncomfortable parliamentary inquisitions and hefty fines. It is, after all, far harder to fault a million earnest users than a single billionaire tech CEO.

For now, though, Jack Dorsey et al have their work cut out communicating, clarifying and implementing their new technology. Their users will determine the practicality and success of Birdwatch, and with it, Twitter’s freedom to conduct business as usual.

By Declan Burrowes

Declan Burrowes is content and editorial manager at communications agency 360. A version of this article originally appeared on the 360 blog.