Twitter's Birdwatch Plan to Beat Misinformation May Get 'Messy,' Admits VP Keith Coleman

A Twitter executive has said that a new "community-driven" misinformation moderation pilot called Birdwatch could get "messy."

The social network announced on Monday the scheme will be taking place in the U.S. using similar techniques that have proven to be effective on Wikipedia, giving users the ability to flag posts and submit notes that provide "informative context" to potential false claims. Wikipedia lets anyone on the internet edit its content, but is ruled over by a wider community.

Keith Coleman, vice president of product at Twitter, wrote in a release detailing the pilot on Monday: "We believe this approach has the potential to respond quickly when misleading information spreads, adding context that people trust and find valuable."

As an open social media site, Twitter has had to contend with a slew of misinformation in the past year, including baseless election fraud claims from former President Donald Trump and false information regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and vaccinations. Earlier this month, it conducted a major purge of accounts tied to the QAnon conspiracy.

Twitter's civic integrity policy already deals with some aspects of misinformation, recently cited in the permanent suspension of MyPillow CEO Mike Lindel, and the platform has in the past added warning labels or flags to posts that violate its rules.

Birdwatch will go one step further by enhancing the moderation powers available to Twitter users, and Coleman appeared aware of the potential risks involved.

"We know there are a number of challenges toward building a community-driven system like this, from making it resistant to manipulation attempts to ensuring it isn't dominated by a simple majority or biased based on its distribution of contributors," he wrote.

"We know this might be messy and have problems at times but we believe [its] a model worth trying," he said, noting the pilot will be used to explore such issues.

Most Twitter users will not see any changes to the website just yet, the team said. In the pilot's first phase, submitted notes will only be visible on a separate website. Pilot participants will rate the helpfulness of notes added by other contributors.

NBC News reported Twitter's pilot will initially be supported by a "small set" of users who have an account linked to a real phone number or email address.

For now, notes about misinformation will have zero effect on how users see tweets, but Coleman said the plan is to make them "visible directly on tweets for the global Twitter audience when there is consensus from a broad and diverse set of contributors."

The social network said it conducted over 100 "qualitative interviews" with users across the political spectrum, and it had received "broad general support" for Birdwatch.

On its Twitter account, the Birdwatch team responded to concerns raised by reporters who cover misinformation, including that mass note submissions may be used to drown out legitimate information, known as brigading, and contributors may be harassed.

Brigading is also one of our top concerns. Birdwatch will only be successful if a wide range of people with diverse views find context it adds to be helpful & appropriate. We’ll be experimenting with mechanics and incentives that are different from Twitter. For example…

— Birdwatch (@birdwatch) January 25, 2021

Yes, it’s essential that people feel safe contributing, and we’re going to be paying close attention to this in the pilot. We’ll be in regular communication with pilot participants to understand their experiences, and they’ll be able to reach the Birdwatch team directly via DM.

— Birdwatch (@birdwatch) January 25, 2021

It said: "Brigading is also one of our top concerns. Birdwatch will only be successful if a wide range of people with diverse views find context it adds to be helpful & appropriate. We'll be experimenting with mechanics and incentives that are different from Twitter.

"For example, incorporating input from a wide & diverse set of folks vs. letting a simple majority determine outcomes," the Birdwatch account said.

"Later in the pilot we'll build a reputation system where participants earn reputation over time for contributions that people from a wide range of perspectives find helpful."

Trump suspended Twitter account
The suspended Twitter account of former President Donald Trump appears on a laptop screen on January 08, 2021. Twitter conceded that its efforts to create a “community-driven” process of fighting back against misinformation is likely to be “messy.” Justin Sullivan/Getty