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Any time Twitter launches a new feature designed to make the social media platform a better place to have online conversations, things get complicated real quick. And it’s no different with Birdwatch, a nifty little fact-checking program that Twitter says is designed to fight misinformation and disinformation. On one hand, it’s important to applaud Twitter for any steps the company takes to clean up the toxic and divisive conversations that take place online. On the other hand, though, it’s just as important to recognize when Twitter is attempting to hoodwink us yet again with a form of censorship lite.
Details about Birdwatch
At the end of January, Twitter launched the new Birdwatch program in private beta, meaning that it was only open to about 1,000 users. The job of those lucky thousand users was to go out and fact-check Twitter for misinformation and disinformation. Any time they found evidence of this happening online, they could append little “context notes” to the offending tweet. Since the program is only in beta, the “context notes” would not appear publicly – but they would appear in the Birdwatch database of tweets. And by going to the main Birdwatch site, the beta users would essentially be able to rate all the context notes submitted, such that the best notes would surface to the top.
All of that sounds well and good, of course. If you look at the Birdwatch website, the sample offered up by the Twitter team is an April Fool’s Day prank gone bad. In theory, a group of Birdwatchers would have caught the prank in its infancy and prevented it from going viral, thereby preventing the spread of misinformation. Twitter is giving itself a big pat on the back for making its Birdwatch program open and transparent, even going so far as to enable free download of all context notes submitted to the program.
The dangers of Birdwatch
But think for a moment what this new Birdwatch feature is similar to. Yes, you guessed it, it’s similar to the way that Twitter appends little fact-checking notes to offending tweets that break with the conventional media narrative. Most notably, Twitter made waves with its flat-out censorship and fact-checking of former President Trump. And Twitter has made it its mission to fact-check all manner of “conspiracy theories,” even when those conspiracy theories seem to be true. Right now, Twitter is in the midst of scrubbing its platform of any offending tweets related to election fraud and vaccines, and it’s not hard to understand why. For the past few years, Twitter has been transforming from a neutral platform for free speech to simply a megaphone for the mainstream media.
Twitter and the art of censorship lite
While a fully transparent Birdwatch sounds laudable on the surface, it’s clear what it really is: a form of censorship lite. Do you really want politically-motivated people on the web to be reading your tweets, simply to see if your view of reality lines up with theirs? If it doesn’t, you’ll be fact-checked over and over again, and in a way that makes any content that you produce in the future seem somehow suspect to your followers and fans. Having a little “context note” appended to one of your tweets is like having a little asterisk placed next to your name for no good reason. Yes, facts matter. But that doesn’t mean that a small sliver of Twitter society has the right to decide if their facts are better than your facts.