What is ‘misleading’ content concerning a civic process? As the world awaited for the 2020 US election results, workers of Twitter proceeded to hide a wide array of Tweets from individuals and politicians addressing the electoral process, including those of the United States president, Donald Trump. With such enforcing rules and policies being implemented by Twitter, it becomes imperative to assess whether a measure of this nature may be enhancing or rather interfering with any democratic process, especially in a communication platform of this magnitude.
Twitter’s response to disinformation
Regardless of whose Tweets have been affected by these practices and what denouncements were made by parties involved, it becomes clear that Twitter has been keener to adopt a watchdog function beyond being a platform for open discussion. Twitter’s fact-checking policies have resulted from the mounting pressure of the international public to stop propagating disinformation. Since its launch, the company has tested several measures to counter arrest the spread of disinformation, including flagging content that is deemed to be “harmfully misleading”.
According to Twitter’s co-founder Jack Dorsey, Twitter’s intention has been merely “to connect the dots of conflicting statements” and show disputed information “so people can judge for themselves”. However, several accusations towards Twitter continue to be made about limiting freedom of speech and hiding content. To understand this situation, we must therefore observe how Twitter approaches the issue, and under which circumstances the company labels content as ‘misleading’ or ‘disputed’.
With the introduction of the Civic Integrity Policy, Twitter has started adding notices to the content they find as ‘disputed’ or ‘misleading’. According to Twitter’s rules, no user can employ their platform’s services to produce and spread misleading content about the time, place, and procedures to participate in a civic process. The company argues that this would entail manipulation, disruption or interference of such processes or their outcomes. Labelling Tweets and decreasing their visibility on the platform is therefore a practice that Twitter will adopt if it identifies any false or misleading content under their policy’s criteria. Despite being a good initiative, as this policy aims to maintain the integrity of political conversation in the platform, key questions arise:
(1) How does this affect freedom of speech, and (2) to what extent can Twitter, which so far has primarily functioned as a discussion platform, play a fact-checking role to select what content is truthful or not?
Where does ‘freedom of speech’ fit in the debate?
In the United States, freedom of speech is inherently part of the First Amendment, where anyone has the ultimate right to articulate their opinions and ideas in a free manner. In a digital context, a similar notion takes place, as social media platforms help to promote political discussion between individuals coming from varied demographics and with different political roles. Although political distrust has heightened in the US and political systems around the globe, news media and the public still rely on politician speech to obtain insights and perspectives about governmental action and their views upon different problems. Just like citizens, politicians on Twitter therefore exercise their freedom of speech, as they are aware of its great potential as a megaphone to spread their views, make denouncements, and reach large audiences.
Media platform or fact-checker?
Independent of the individual, politician, organization, or even president that one favours or disfavours, Twitter like any other social media company counts with two important functions that are pivotal to help maintaining a civic process:
(1) A platform function which can facilitate the exchanging of political ideas in the public sphere, that being of citizens, politicians, or any organization.
(2) A channel function where any medium becomes a channel for the dissemination of political and ideological opinions of different actors.
Twitter has also adopted a smaller role of fact-checking, however, there are some implications that Twitter’s fact-checking process is not immune to. Not only certain Tweets may become potentially less visible on the platform, but also being selective can arguably result in a biased perception among Twitter users. Labelling or hiding Tweets therefore becomes debatable, especially if their content is not externally verified by users or other parties.
Can we as citizens corroborate that Tweets are in fact ‘misleading’?
The purpose of disinformation is to intentionally mislead readers about a topic, and this is the problem that Twitter is currently aiming to regulate. Labelling content as ‘misleading’ or ‘disputed’ is therefore a form of fact-checking, a process where the veracity of claims made by different public ﬁgures is evaluated, and errors are pinpointed when information has already been disseminated. So far, this difficult task had been associated with journalists, who regularly use politicians’ opinions and counter them with other facts for their articles.
Whether it is Twitter or any journalist, we must acknowledge it is impossible to have an unbiased and completely fair source of information to fact-check events or claims.
Whether it is Twitter or any journalist, we must acknowledge it is impossible to have an unbiased and completely fair source of information to fact-check events or claims. Although it is already hard to discern which information is closer to the truth, it is important to always remember that the mere action of fact-checking does not entitle the individual, media, organization, or politician that uses this method to fully discredit others’ claims, as it offers provisional and limited information which is always open to criticism.
Now, this does not mean that some Tweets are not deceptive in nature, or that rules must not be applied by companies like Twitter, but rather that information and sources used for fact-checking must always be revisited and evaluated by ordinary citizens around the globe, rather than taken for granted as truthful. The challenge lies in how this is an ongoing but necessary process of comparing and contrasting claims that are similar or contradictory in nature, which is usually energy and time-consuming.
Even if a fact-checking option is provided by discussion platforms like Twitter, one thing is for sure: any individual must be able to communicate their views and verify others’ using primary sources (i.e. statements, official documents or conferences), but in order to achieve this, Tweets must remain visible. Twitter’s policies not only concern politicians, but certainly citizens, for which having a platform for denouncements becomes more than crucial for claims to be investigated by institutions, and ensure that healthy democratic processes ultimately take place.
Cover photo: Andrea Valdivia