Twitter continues to expand its Community Notes feature, which Twitter chief Elon Musk believes will be a key element in establishing the platform’s new ‘Trust as a Service’ approach, and see Twitter become a more critical provider of truth in news and information.
Which is a noble aim, but how that actually plays out remains to be seen.
The latest expansion sees Community Notes moving abroad, with users in more regions now able to apply to add notes to contextual notes and reference links to questionable claims in tweets.
We are now admitting contributors from the UK ????????, Ireland ????????, Australia ???????? and New Zealand ???????? — welcome to Community Notes! Want to help? Sign up here: https://t.co/FSsqNzonnz
— Community Notes (@CommunityNotes) January 20, 2023
As per the announcement, selected users in the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand will now be admitted into the Community Notes program, which will greatly expand the amount of local knowledge and input feeding into the Notes system.
Twitter’s been working to build Community Notes (formerly ‘Birdwatch’) into a form of crowd-sourced fact-checking, as a means to both reduce its internal obligations in moderating content, and to empower Twitter users themselves to decide what’s acceptable and what’s not in the app.
Approved Notes contributors are able to add contextual explainers that are then appended to tweets, with all Twitter users then able to rate notes as helpful or not, thus influencing the trustworthiness of the Note creator (and their capacity to continue adding Notes).
Which is a good experiment, though whether it’s a scalable replacement for actual, human fact-checkers and moderators is another question altogether.
Elon is pushing hard to make Community Notes a thing – which makes sense given that he’s also cut thousands of moderators as part of his cost-reduction measures.
But one of the key concerns with Community Notes is that they could potentially over-simplify complex issues, with notes that may seem right, but don’t really tell the full story.
Which is a broader problem with modern web culture. If you can explain something with a simple meme, it quickly spreads as a fact, when the world’s most divisive and challenging issues are actually far more complex than a screenshot of a cowboy telling it how it is.
Take, for example, this Community Note that Elon himself retweeted.
This is correct, egg prices are up due to avian flu – but also due to increasing costs of production, as well as higher demand. But does that justify a corporation upping its prices, and raking in more profit? They do this because they can – why would they eat the price rises from suppliers if they don’t have to – but in essence, both aspects are true, egg prices are higher because of avian flu AND corporate greed.
But that type of nuance could be restricted by a more simplified Notes system, which could then see misleading claims amplified, as opponents try to dunk on each other’s tweets.
And if you then apply the same process to even bigger issues, like, say, climate change, for which there are many complex elements, what then? What about vaccine take-up – it’s possible that you could disprove one element with a simple Note, while skipping over several other influential factors or points?
Definitely, giving users reason to pause on any potentially false claims is a positive. But when you also feel a need to make qualifying statements like this:
We are going to great lengths to avoid the Wikipedia left wing editorial control problem. By the same token, Community Notes cannot be biased towards the right either. Maximizing for truth is the goal.
— Elon Musk (@elonmusk) January 22, 2023
That seems a little concerning.
Either way, Elon sees Community Notes as part of his broader mission to make Twitter the source of truth, as ruled by, and for the people, whether that’s actually true or not.
“To succeed as a [Trust as a Service provider], New Twitter must act as a defiant force by resisting pressure from Legacy Media to stifle conversations on its platform and by empowering citizen journalism in order to displace the role of old oligarchies in trust brokering.”
Community Notes is part of the ‘citizen journalism’ push, but as with most of Elon’s statements on this front, this also vastly overrates the perceived influence of outside forces in general media coverage, which people in positions of power, like Musk, can then use to imbue distrust, and dismiss any information that they find inconvenient.
But that’s, apparently, the mission. Which, given Twitter has lost 40% of ad revenue, and is potentially on track for bankruptcy, isn’t looking great. But maybe, through the added capacity of fact-checks via Community Notes – for which Twitter is developing a more robust solution for vetting and approving contributors – that could end up lessening the impact of false claims, while saving Twitter money in the process.
But it feels risky to put so much reliance on it so quickly.
Twitter says that it will add new Community Notes contributors in batches, as it looks to grow the contributor base by 10% per week for the immediate future.