Flat White

Twitter’s new moderators: #Birdwatch or birdshot?

29 January 2021

4:05 PM

29 January 2021

4:05 PM

Birdwatching is a pleasant, passive sort of ‘niche’ activity. Avian enthusiasts go about their lives, keeping an eye out for a flutter of wings and then linger in appreciation. I do this against my will over a morning coffee on the farm balcony where I am attacked –- Hitchcock-style -– by descendants of the Triassic. 

Twitchers play a different game. Devoted to their pursuit, they traverse continents in packs, camouflage their hides and lay in wait for hours or even years to stalk a list of specific birds. Before it fell out of fashion, those prized finds were often shot, stuffed, and put on display. 

When Twitter announced ‘Birdwatch’, it was not the unveiling of a flattery project. Birdwatching Twitter-style was never going to be about finding and elevating great content on their platform for the benefit of the flock – instead it entails ideological twitching that demands a cabinet full of confirmed kills. 

‘Introducing Birdwatch,’ said Twitter’s official blog, ‘a community-based approach to misinformation.’

Which either sounds a bit like Wikipedia’s community-based approach to history or a machine for generating propaganda, depending on how seriously you take their grammar. 

Essentially, Birdwatch is another iteration where a platform exerts editorial control by employing crowd-sourced reporting. The purpose is to locate ‘problematic data’. That is, posts which do not technically break their wishy-washy, poorly applied terms and conditions, but continue to contradict the preferred narrative of Silicon Valley. Where the ‘like’ button boosts content (and morale), this feature is designed to discredit content via the consensus of the mob. It is a clever way for Twitter to act as a publisher whilst hiding behind the feathers of its users. 

People come to Twitter to stay informed, and they want credible information to help them do so.

These days Twitter advertises itself as a news corporation rather than a social platform. Maybe Jack Dorsey grew tired of introducing himself as, ‘CEO of a glorified text-messaging service with cat gifs’? 

At its height, Twitter was an unstoppable product which had accidentally become a bustling open forum of ideas and commerce more powerful than any single news entity or utility. It was a genuinely diverse, virtual melting pot of human thought that was strengthened by its irreverence and devotion to unchastened noise. Chaos is the creator of beauty, and that is what these platforms embodied in their infancy. 

Powerful things are rarely left to sit in contemplation. 

Twitter, like Facebook before it, was dragged into the political sphere by its own vanity. The power which social media once held to elect otherwise unknown politicians was now a dangerous tool that could unseat institutionalised corruption from its perch. These entities orbiting at the top of the political sphere had never been threatened by a publication, but the citizenry elevated to print was something to be feared. 

To wrangle Twitter, its information had to be controlled. This was a demand that not even its creators knew how to deliver upon – and not for a lack of desire. 

There are major problems that face those trying to filter third party user content on the internet. 

Computers are incapable of accurately filtering the flow of human social interaction. Searching for keywords is easy -– just ask Google. If you want articles on ‘Churchill’ it will find you 109,000,000 pages starting with a Wikipedia summary. Type in ‘Churchill + bird’ and you arrive at Charlie the Parrot, Churchill’s pet bird during World War II that liked to squawk curses at Hitler’s expense. These are basic word associations which computers are pretty good at. Computers fall down the moment information crosses from fact into social obscurity. Even before the US presidential election, Silicon Valley had invested billions into their algorithms in the futile hope that a soulless digital entity could be put in charge of censoring social media. 

In short, computers assess words in one dimension. As they are not weird, slightly-broken mammals, their hard drives cannot tell the difference between a news article, call to Jihad, joke, chat, or deliberate fiction. Only one of those things breaks Twitter’s terms and conditions, but all may contain identical content as far as the computer is concerned. 

This means that one way or another actual people have to moderate Twitter. 

Human moderation is built on ‘trust’ which poses a problem when social media has turned ‘trust’ into a registered trademark rather than a moral concept. 

Crowd-sourced moderation has been tried many times. Before social media became an appendage of political propaganda, small tech operations struggled to weed out harmful content – which was a requirement to keep their platforms inside Section 230 regulations. (This used to matter.) Forum moderators were largely volunteers who kept an eye on their corner of the internet. Honesty was maintained by their (anonymous) reputation online. They were truly independent and nothing like the workhouses full of ideologues that currently fact check from California. 

Being a good moderator was a status symbol that had to be earned. Users flagged data and moderators reviewed it. Only severe incidents were escalated to the platform owners. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with this approach just as Birdwatch, in theory, should be fine. It is a slow process, but so long as the employees and volunteers are genuine about their role, humans are perfectly capable of maintaining the peace. 

Unfortunately, humans are – well – human. Volunteer-based moderation has always suffered from petty revenge, ideological grudges, and outright sabotage by people who enjoy watching the world burn. Wikipedia was one of the first volunteer-moderated digital ecosystems that had to shut its doors to the open forum and take control of its editors after waves of malicious editing manifested in very real threats of legal action over defamation. 

Again, in principle, a team of staff moderators are able to solve this problem -– or they would be if social media companies conducted themselves like honourable businesses. Unfortunately, Silicon Valley has become a war zone of politically motivated censorship incited by the platform’s management, who are the worst offenders. They break their own terms of service to satisfy personal politics, turning human-based moderation into an escalation of digital lynching. 

Crowd-sourced content moderation can never work in this environment. 

Although the press are incorrectly reporting the purpose of Birdwatch, Twitter has been upfront about what this project really is. 

‘Birdwatch allows people to identify information in Tweets they believe is misleading or false, and write notes that provide informative context. We believe this approach has the potential to respond quickly when misleading information spreads, adding context that people trust and find valuable. Eventually we aim to make notes visible directly on Tweets for the global Twitter audience, when there is consensus from a broad and diverse set of contributors,’ wrote Twitter Vice President Keith Coleman, in an earlier press release. 

Twitter is well aware that its continual and thorough culling of political and ideological views has left its platform with a uniform customer base who have already been caught compiling lists to hound anyone who disagrees with their narrow opinion. Birdwatch empowers these groups, giving them an official channel to continue their work. It even goes so far as to allow users to rate other users, ensuring that the minority of conservatives are devalued as individuals so that their opinions on content are further reduced, rendering them silent. It is the opposite of an equitable system. 

Birdwatch is where Twitter officially changes from moderation (albeit highly flawed) to true propaganda. 

Instead of terms of service, which everyone can reasonably attempt to remain within while disagreeing with each other, Birdwatch is rating information. Consensus has never been a measure of ‘truth’. In fact, consensus has nothing to do with ‘truth’ at all. The consensus of a crowd accompanies truth as often as lunacy – so to use it as a measure of filtering public posts is nothing short of editorial manipulation. 

Twitter goes on in its media release to call this behaviour the ‘community’s voice’ rather than a central authority and that it is better than labelling things ‘true or false’. This only works if you understand ‘community voice’ to mean ‘approved consensus’ moderated by a ‘secret police’ who assign ‘ideological value’ to people and their speech. 

Take Birdwatch in partnership with Twitter’s article titled, ‘Covid-19: our approach to misleading vaccine information’ in which Twitter threatens to ‘require the removal of Tweets that include false or misleading information’ about Covid19, the vaccine, safety measures, and any discussion surrounding it. To suggest that a vaccine might cause harm is forbidden on Twitter, even if it is true – although they intend to take no legal responsibility for the suppression of potentially life-saving public information. Robbing people of the right to discuss the largest economic and medical health crisis on the planet is the action of an authoritarian entity protecting its friends, not facilitating an open platform discussion (as they claim). 

Twitter’s assumption that it is responsible for truth should immediately disqualify it from Section 230 Immunity and shift it into the realm of publishers and news outlets. 

None of this would matter if these were simply the actions of a random social media company. Love it or hate it, Twitter has tangible power in the modern world. What it endorses – politicians assume they can get away with… Orchestrated digital consensus is taken as a mandate to play with our liberties on a global scale. 

We must therefore take very seriously the escalation of digital manipulation and call on governments to enforce the existing regulations of Section 230 on these out of control media empires. What we must not do is invite politicians to tighten their own grip on the open forum. 

If we fail to act, there is every chance we will end up stuffed and gathering dust in a twitcher’s trophy cabinet. 

Alexandra Marshall is an independent writer. If you would like to support her work, shout her a coffee over at Ko-Fi.

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