Whales are not real. They are government-funded robots used to monitor the population. If something like this is on Twitter, users should be able to take action in the future – the short message service is testing what the company says is a “community-driven” function against the spread of fake news. Discussions about the truthfulness of tweets should take place on an initially separate part of the platform called “Birdwatch”, if possible with sources for allegations and a separate rating system for particularly reliable fact checkers. Algorithms in the background should ensure that it is fair and balanced when the community discusses what is true and what is wrong.
Birdwatch is initially starting as a pilot project with around 1000 users. Only US citizens can apply, there are no special requirements, they do not receive any money, and the discussions are temporarily not visible on the Twitter main page. On the surface, not much changes in a social network, which is often quoted in the media, but only used by comparatively few people. Still, Birdwatch is a potentially groundbreaking project. It is less a new function than a platform within the platform – with its own reward mechanisms and algorithmic sorting logics that are not aimed at the ingenious, polarizing, high-reach content possible, but rather on factual loyalty and impartiality. In the best-case scenario, something returns whose absence has already been blamed for many evils, great and small: a level of the factual – as a social medium.
How does such a level arise? What’s true? So far, Twitter, like Facebook, has decided in a top-down process. Over the past year, the company began labeling posts that spread blatant lies or conspiracy stories with appropriate warnings. The platform intervened for the first time in the discussions that took place on it. This was the first step in a development that it can no longer go back. It is only logical that the company would now like to return the ball to its users. It has come under fire from Republican supporters and their sympathizers around the world who believe their opinions have been censored along with Donald Trump’s tweets. A company has nothing to gain in the struggle over true and false. That only costs money.
Specifically, users should no longer just “report” a tweet because of a violation of the user guidelines, but should also be able to write a birdwatch note if they consider the content to be incorrect. This then ends up in a separate discussion forum that is publicly visible to everyone. There the “birdwatchers” can rate each other. Articles that are often marked as “helpful” are more visible. Notes from users who receive positive feedback frequently and from many different user milieus also slide up in the ranking. In addition, the algorithms should ensure that assessments from different perspectives are clearly visible. So to the question of whether whales are robot spies, for example the assessment of a humpback whale researcher – because of the good birdwatch ratings of his mini-treatise, which is filled with all kinds of sources Megaptera novaeangliae – but also from someone who in the past has been able to convincingly demonstrate that the government is capable of anything. According to the plans of Twitter, the community’s standing committee of inquiry meets and discusses itself.
Facebook initially took another step towards becoming a digital system Checks and Balances decided: For a few months now, a prominent “oversight board” has been working as a kind of internal constitutional court on disputed decisions by the company’s Lösch employees. Youtube appoints users who report problematic content particularly frequently as “Trusted Flaggers”. The moderators process the reports from these deputies with priority, but the company does not give them direct power over the content.
Birdwatch is now the first initiative of a larger platform that does not aim to moderate more targeted or fair content, i.e. in many cases: delete it. Rather, it is about “context that people trust and consider valuable,” as Keith Coleman, Vice President of Twitter, put it in one Blog post. How this context looks, which contributions of the “birdwatchers” are clearly visible and which are not, is decided by the company’s algorithms. So Twitter will not become a democratic platform. But the short message service creates a digital space for a discussion of facts.
After completion of the pilot phase, the two initially separate levels, Twitter and Birdwatch, are to be intertwined. Then the fact checks of the users should be where the information from Twitter’s team of moderators currently warn of “controversial and possibly misleading” content. Not as a comment, but as part of the post.