Is Twitter's Birdwatch Fact Checking the Fact Checkers?
holy shit that fact check
NOTE: while stories of chaos and excitement continue to break out of Twitter, there remains much confusion pertaining to what has and hasn’t actually changed, both on the platform and at the company. While terms of service — much to the continued insistence of censorship proponents to the contrary — have not changed, community fact-checking standards do appear… different.
River Page takes a look at Birdwatch, Twitter’s community-based moderation tool, a few shocking fact checks of the nation’s former greatest fans of fact-checking, and the ongoing controversy surrounding the future of the global town square.
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Yesterday, the White House tweeted, then quickly deleted “Seniors are getting the biggest increase in their social security checks in 10 years through President Biden's leadership.” The problem? Birdwatch, Twitter’s community notes feature, added context to the tweet, attributing the increase to a Nixon-era law that automatically adjusts social security benefits in concordance with the cost of living. In practice, the added context very clearly demonstrated, by any objective measure, the White House’s tweet was straight-up misinformation. Hilariously, the added context also made the White House look like it was attributing inflation to Biden's leadership, a real-life version of the “I did that” Biden stickers that have become a frequent appearance at gas pumps throughout the country.
White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre later commented the tweet was deleted because it lacked the “context” that “for the first time in over a decade seniors' Medicare premiums will decrease even as their Social Security checks increase.” It should go without saying this is not “context,” but a completely different statement.
Reaction to “Twitter’s fact check,” as the community note was immediately characterized, was — from all political poles — genuine shock. Birdwatch, publicly tested for a little over a year now, hit the ground running with a target on Covid misinformation, which is a kind of “fact check” we’re now used to seeing. More specifically, “fact checks” on Covid misinformation are something we’re used to seeing disproportionately target accounts coded as right-wing. Then, long before the community feature existed, Twitter was an information landscape of endless top-down pandemic and election-era fact checks, again almost entirely coinciding with the given day’s preferred, left-wing version of reality. Indeed, for all its politicization, the phrase “fact check” has itself become something of a pejorative for half the country — on the right.
But yesterday? Just a few days after Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover, Birdwatch went off book — wildly off book — with a robust, well-documented fact-checking across the mainstream left. Let’s take a quick look at the bangers. (Note: community notes seem to only appear to logged-in users.)
They actually went back in time to add context to this one.
This note was later removed. But while it lasted, it was… well it was really something.
They are keeping Biden honest, aren’t they?
What is this community notes feature, exactly?
Birdwatch is a process by which vetted members of the community anonymously “provide context” to tweets. With a slow roll-out to U.S. users at the beginning of October, Birdwatch members write notes — the use of links being highly encouraged — which are then “rated” as “helpful” or “not helpful.”
Twitter says anyone with a verified US phone number from a trusted carrier and an account older than six months old with no recent notice of Twitter rules violations is eligible to join. Birdwatch is still in its pilot stage, and limited to a small test group in the US, with plans to admit any and all eligible users on a rolling basis, selecting randomly when there are more eligible applicants than slots.
It’s not exactly clear what about the community changed yesterday, if anything. All we know for sure is last week there were notable embarrassing contextualizations of right-wing propaganda, and no notable embarrassing contextualizations of left-wing propaganda. Now, there are many examples. Did Elon do it? Single-handedly? Is there a conspiracy afoot!
Celebrity socialist Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez already believes she’s been censored. Evidence? None. But when has that ever stopped anyone?
Predictably, Democrats have become anxious about the prospect of a less ideological Twitter, which under public ownership created policies to censor speech that challenged left-wing orthodoxies. This anxiety has extended to suspicion of Birdwatch. Sawyer Hackett, Communications Director for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a left-wing SuperPac, tweeted “The White House has been ‘fact-checked’ by Twitter with mundane nuances at least three times since Elon Musk took over. A right-wing filter on a giant communications platform—what could go wrong?”
This tweet was itself Birdwatched with a note clarifying, “The characterization of the notes (“'fact checked' by Twitter”) is incorrect and misleading. The notes are Birdwatch notes, which are written by Birdwatch contributors, not Twitter employees.” Behold.
While it’s undeniably funny to watch people who were just weeks ago full-throated fanboys of hall monitors absolutely lose their minds over their own monitoring, it is worth noting the system itself is as dangerous today as it ever was. In the first place, a true community vote on the veracity of some information or other is itself — even if working perfectly — dystopian. The truth is the truth, regardless of popularity. But Birdwatch will never even be that, the more democratic sort of “contextualization” its architects, now including Elon, have promised.
When Birdwatch’s pilot period ends, and almost everyone on Twitter can join, most people probably won't, just like most people who read Wikipedia don't help edit. Like Wikipedia editing, Birdwatch will likely remain the domain of a dedicated, Aspergian few genuinely committed to the project, the same kind of person attracted to all levers of bureaucratic and nanny-state power, and these people tend to share a worldview. It leans left.
But in the shorter-term? Elon’s existence has certainly confused the narrative.
Despite the fact that Birdwatch shows notes rated helpful by people who “tend to disagree,” Democrats are already viewing it as an evil plot against them. Who could have guessed? Of course, attacks on Birdwatch will escalate as Elon's tenure matures, probably peaking in the next presidential election, when the media cycle will blame the guy for any electoral outcome it doesn’t like. And when that goes down, hopefully Birdwatch will focus on checking those in power instead of ruining bits about Andre, the Giant.
Only time will tell.