Twitter launched its Birdwatch feature earlier this year with media noting the similarities between the crowd-sourced fact-checking process and the open editing model of Wikipedia, a comparison Twitter touted in early demos. However, much like Wikipedia, the Birdwatch platform often serves as a way for users to push their political agenda. Both right and left have taken advantage, though Twitter promises tighter restrictions, which the platform’s history of bias suggests will tilt it towards the left.
With Birdwatch, Twitter is the latest of the Big Tech platforms to look to Wikipedia for a way to battle “fake news” online, something the online encyclopedia’s owners have promoted and now seek to use for generating revenue through a recently-announced commercial service.
In a January blog post unveiling Birdwatch, Twitter explained the service as allowing regular Twitter users to “fact-check” tweets they find misleading. Although the service is currently limited to a section of the site separated from Twitter, the post states these “fact-checks” would eventually be presented on Twitter’s main platform “when there is consensus from a broad and diverse set of contributors.” Birdwatch contributions can also be rated by users as either “helpful” or “not helpful” with such ratings determining the prominence of contributions under each tweet.
Such a process of consensus voting determining what information is presented to the public imitates the crowd-sourcing methods of Wikipedia. Twitter itself in early Birdwatch demos made this comparison, according to NBC News, and the comparison has been made repeatedly in news reports about the new service. Corporate media have increasingly praised Wikipedia and advocated for either its use by Big Tech in efforts to combat “fake news” online or for using the online encyclopedia as a model in those efforts. However, Wikipedia also has long-standing issues, such as the bias and controversy it experienced in its 20th year and Birdwatch also replicates those failures.
Birdwatch has provided legitimate fact-checking of left-wing Twitter users in addition to fact-checking right-wing users, such as by noting several progressive commentators were using a 2019 image of a Florida beach gathering to attack the state over its lax coronavirus regulations or a viral fake screen-cap of Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) attacking him over his climate change stance. In some cases, users resorted to nit-picking, such as responding to a February 28 tweet by Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler asking “Who was president a month ago?” after Trump complained about kids not being in school yet by noting Biden technically held the office on January 28.
However, Birdwatch has also been used to push partisan spin as when users responded to Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) saying “Protecting and defending the Constitution doesn’t mean trying to rewrite the parts you don’t like” regarding a Congressional ban on firearms possession in the Chambers by citing the Constitutional Amendment process. Criticism from Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC) that Big Tech companies were stifling conservatives was “fact-checked” by Birdwatch users because Cawthorn referenced “1st Amendment speech” and Birdwatch users claimed the amendment did not limit corporations, ignoring Cawthorn specifically accused tech companies of exploiting Section 230 legal immunity.
At times, Birdwatch users “fact-checked” conservatives by pushing misleading left-wing narratives. This included denying Antifa involvement in the Capitol storming, despite one Antifa group leader being charged, or suggesting Democrat “election reform” legislation did not ban voter ID laws because it only required an alternative of signed statements. A tweet earlier this month by Andy Ngo noting Chicago teenager Adam Toledo was armed right before being shot by police saw responses doing little more than expressing doubt about his statements while attacking him as a “right-wing provocateur” or claiming he “is infamous for spreading complete lies” without citing sources. Many biased “fact-checks” received a “helpful” rating on Birdwatch.
Questions about whether Birdwatch could be as “effective” as Wikipedia were raised immediately after its launch. In an article for Fast Company, many of the same “diversity” concerns raised about Wikipedia were raised regarding Birdwatch as well as “harassment” as a factor. Molly White, an administrator with special privileges and who edits as “GorillaWarfare” on Wikipedia, is quoted several times questioning whether Birdwatch can prevent harassment from influencing discussion and whether people would be willing to offer their help for free at a for-profit site. White was further quoted by NPR as questioning how Birdwatch would handle “inaccurate” fact-checks.
Due to such concerns, Twitter has already committed to examining policy changes to Birdwatch. According to a report in Reuters, one method Twitter is examining is assigning “reputational scores” for Birdwatch users based on how many consider their fact-checks “helpful” to other users. Further, Reuters reported Twitter has also announced plans for an advisory council of “outside experts” to “help guide Birdwatch’s development” and cites Keith Coleman, Twitter’s vice president of product, stating Twitter was looking at several options to prevent harassment, such as creating special additional rules for the Birdwatch platform.
Policy changes emphasizing “reputable” sources based on “consensus” and limiting “harassment” mimic Wikipedia policies that have been used to push the online encyclopedia further left. Wikipedia policies regarding verifiability have frequently been invoked in an ongoing purge of conservative media by site users. Twitter and Wikipedia have already used such standards in tandem to suppress news unflattering to the left last year, when both saw actions to censor a New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s questionable foreign business dealings in one of many cases of Wikipedia and Big Tech favoring the 2020 Presidential campaign of Joe Biden.
The Wikimedia Foundation that owns Wikipedia recently approved a “code of conduct” for their sites, which advances a left-wing identity politics agenda with measures such as requiring use of “preferred pronouns” and prohibiting “harmful” symbols. Wikipedia editors have invoked such standards when temporarily banning an editor who questioned using “tree” as a pronoun and to ban profile pages from stating marriage is between a man and a woman, prompting outrage from Christian and family organizations. On Twitter, users have been subject to censorship for stating basic facts about biological sex and “harassment” policies have also been used to shut down accounts of the undercover journalists at Project Veritas.
Birdwatch is simply the latest effort by Big Tech to take after Wikipedia in how they inform users. Google has long used the site for its “knowledge panels” that appear next to search results and Facebook adopted such panels as well last year. Facebook also uses Wikipedia to provide information on news outlets so users can check the “veracity” of their sources, meaning every Breitbart News link is appended with a note spreading Wikipedia’s smears about the outlet. YouTube has also attached notes citing Wikipedia to “fact-check” videos allegedly containing “conspiracy theories” since 2018. Virtual data assistants such as Google Home and Amazon’s Alexa also rely on Wikipedia.
Wikipedia’s Foundation owners have encouraged Big Tech’s use of the site by promoting Wikipedia through the media as a solution to the so-called “fake news” issue. This follows a strategy suggested to the Foundation in a communications audit by Minassian Media, owned by the Head of Communication for the Clinton Foundation, to capitalize on concerns about “misinformation” during the 2016 election. The Foundation leaned into this wider Big Tech adoption by creating Wikimedia Enterprise, a commercial service specifically intended to earn revenue by providing corporate clients specialized access to Wikipedia data, which is currently used for free.
Efforts relying on or mimicking Wikipedia to stop “fake news” largely ignore the site’s own role in spreading it as when Wikipedia has been involved in spreading hoaxes through the media. Big Tech have also been afflicted with this problem as in multiple cases where Google’s knowledge panel has spread Wikipedia smears against conservative groups such as the California Republican Party and the Conservative Political Action Conference. In looking to Wikipedia, Birdwatch risks following the same error-riddled model that has not only contributed to Wikipedia’s unreliability, but also its left-wing bias as identified in numerous studies and analyses and as repeatedly criticized by the site’s co-founder.
T. D. Adler edited Wikipedia as The Devil’s Advocate. He was banned after privately reporting conflict of interest editing by one of the site’s administrators. Due to previous witch-hunts led by mainstream Wikipedians against their critics, Adler writes under an alias.