Twitter is expanding Birdwatch, its misinformation debunking product “for the people, by the people,” in the U.S., a move that will put community-based fact checking to the test. In the coming days, there’s a good chance you’ll see notes on tweets in your timeline written by Birdwatch contributors that provide additional information or maybe even reveal that the tweet is completely wrong.
Beginning this week, Twitter will begin to accept 1,000 new contributors per week to Birdwatch, adding to the roughly 15,000 it already has. Contributors’ work will be more visible on timelines, with Twitter aiming to eventually roll out the feature to 50% of U.S. users. For those unfamiliar, Birdwatch is a Twitter pilot product launched in 2021 that uses a community approach to reduce misinformation on the platform. Birdwatch contributors, who are anonymous, are able to write notes that appear below tweets or link to outside sources.
Birdwatch isn’t just meant to tackle hard pieces of misinformation, such as tweets related to covid-19 or the books that are banned in Florida. Keith Coleman, vice president of product at Twitter, told reporters in a call on Tuesday even though the company has a wide range of misinformation policies, there is still a lot of content that is potentially misleading or that’s in a gray area.
That’s where Birdwatch comes in, Coleman said. It allows the users themselves decide whether the context is helpful enough to be added to certain tweets.
“It can answer questions like, is this really the trailer of this new TV show, yes or no? It can speak to the internet’s random curiosities that pop up. Like, is there a giant void in space? Or, is this bat actually the size of a human?” Coleman stated, adding: “That bat is not in fact the size of a human. The photo was just taken from a funny perspective and the bat is only about one foot tall, which may be large, but is smaller than human size. So I learned on Birdwatch.”
According to Twitter, so far Birdwatch has shown that it can have an impact in stopping misinformation. The company says that users are 15 to 35% less likely to like or retweet content with a visible Birdwatch note.
How Twitter Plans to Keep Birdwatch’s Fact-Checks High Quality
Unlike other algorithms online, which elevate content favored by the majority, Birdwatch’s algorithm selects notes considered helpful by contributors who have disagreed in the past—the logic being that if both groups agree the information is helpful, it is likely to be helpful to a wider group of a people. In academia, this is referred to as a “bridging algorithm” or “bridge-based ranking,” Twitter explained, because its purpose is to select content from a range of perspectives.
To ensure the quality of Birdwatch contributions remains high during the expansion, Twitter on Wednesday also unveiled a new two-pronged scoring system in which contributors’ capabilities can be earned and lost over time.
As explained by Twitter, new contributors to Birdwatch will begin with a “Rating Impact” score of “0” and will be unable to write their own notes at first. To increase this score, Birdwatch contributors must do a good job of consistently identifying and classifying notes from other contributors as “Helpful” or “Not Helpful.” Once contributors obtain a score of “5,” they can start writing themselves.
That doesn’t give contributors a blank slate to write whatever they want, though, as they also have a “Writing Impact” score. This score is based on ratings a user’s notes receive from other contributors. If a contributor’s notes are ranked “Not Helpful” repeatedly, their Writing Impact score will decrease, and they may be temporarily blocked from writing notes.
Can Birdwatch Contributors Be Trusted?
Birdwatch’s expansion and new quality assurance system were announced just one day after a report of a leaked audit viewed by the Washington Post revealed that an obvious QAnon supporter was part of Birdwatch. Twitter so far has few criteria in place so far for folks to contribute to Birdwatch.
To become a Birdwatch contributor, Twitter users need to have a verified phone number from a U.S. phone carrier, have no recent violations of Twitter rules, and been on the social media network for at least six months.
In an interview with Gizmodo on Wednesday, Coleman stated that although he had read the news reports, he did not know what specific account they referenced and was unaware of an incident involving a specific account. Nonetheless, he stressed that one account is not enough to affect the entire Birdwatch system.
“I think one really important thing for people to realize is that if one person could influence the outcome of Birdwatch, it wouldn’t work,” he said. “We intentionally are allowing a wide range of people to sign up and we want people from different points of view to sign up. And amidst that, the system needs to be able to show notes that are found broadly helpful. It has to be able to how people of all different kinds of beliefs and all different kinds of motivations in it if it’s going to work.”