Twitter Summons “The Birdwatchers” In Expanding Campaign Against “Misinformation”

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With much fanfare (and catchy background music) Twitter has launched the Birdwatch program, a platform that seeks to enlist the “community” to identify and comment on misinformation contained in tweets.  The company will initially select 1,000 such “Birdwatchers” in its monitoring of information exchanged on its once neutral platform.  Not surprisingly, many of us are not thrilled by the program. While the programs does not allow direct removal of tweets, it is clearly designed to flag tweets that the majority views as misleading. That can then be used by Twitter to further support its expanding censorship of information on the Internet.

The selected Birdwatchers will at least initially post on a  public Birdwatch website as opposed to the targeted twitter account.

Adding a “community-based” system is little improvement over a purely “corporate-based” system of censorship. Twitter still maintains that it will regulate speech and this new platform effectively invites the community to help identify those tweets worthy of being flagged for possible removal or bans. The program will also likely encourage campaigns to add such flags on the Birdwatch site in order to pressure Twitter to ban opposing viewpoints.  It is not clear who will watch the Birdwatchers in that sense.

The suspicion that this system is meant to enhance Twitter’s censorship policies is hard to avoid. After all, Twitter users can already flag what they view as misinformation by responding directly to a Tweet or using their own account to do so. This is an effort to build a consensus in a community that could be used to support the company in what is rumored to be plans for “much bigger” moves on speech regulation. Many critics are not satisfied with being able to respond to opposing viewpoints with their own views. They want to silence opposing viewpoints and control information exchange. Just recently, former Facebook executive Alex Stamos told CNN’s Brian Stelter that we must find new ways to cut off “conservative influencers” including cable news: “We have to turn down the capability of these Conservative influencers to reach these huge audiences… There are people on YouTube for example that have a larger audience than daytime CNN.”

For free speech advocates, the use of such community-based systems is a familiar method of speech curtailment and controls. Popular speech does not need protection.  The key to free speech is the protection of speech that a community or the majority does not favor.

Notably, when Dorsey appeared before the Senate to apologize for the blackout on the Hunter Biden scandal before the election as a mistake, Democratic senators demanded more censorship.  Dorsey agreed that “misleading information, as you are aware, is a large problem. It’s hard to define it completely and cohesively.” Instead of then raising concerns over censoring views and comments on the basis for such an amorphous category, Senator Chris Coons pressed him to expand the categories of censored material to prevent people from sharing any views that he considers “climate denialism.”

One of the loudest voices for censorship has been Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal who seemed to take the opposite meaning from Twitter admitting that it was wrong to censor the Biden story. Blumenthal said that he was “concerned that both of your companies are, in fact, backsliding or retrenching, that you are failing to take action against dangerous disinformation.” Accordingly, he demanded an answer to this question:

“Will you commit to the same kind of robust content modification playbook in this coming election, including fact checking, labeling, reducing the spread of misinformation, and other steps, even for politicians in the runoff elections ahead?”

“Robust content modification” has a certain Orwellian feel to it. It is not content modification. It is censorship. If the Democratic party is going crackdown on free speech, it should admit to being the party of censorship and join those who have insisted “China is right.”

I am an unabashed Internet originalist. I have long opposed the calls for censorship under the pretense of creating “an honest Internet.”  We have have been discussing how writerseditorscommentators, and academics have embraced rising calls for censorship and speech controls, including President-elect Joe Biden and his key advisers. The erosion of free speech has been radically accelerated by the Big Tech and social media companies. The level of censorship and viewpoint regulation has raised questions of a new type of state media where companies advance an ideological agenda with political allies.

As I have previously written, we are witnessing the death of free speech on the Internet.  What is particularly concerning is the common evasion used by academics and reporters that this is not really a free speech issue because these are private companies. The First Amendment is designed to address government restrictions on free speech. As a private entity, Twitter is not the subject of that amendment. However, private companies can still destroy free speech through private censorship. I have previously discussed this aspect of speech controls as the “Little Brother problem.” President Trump can be chastised for converting a “Little Brother” into a “Big Brother” problem. However, that does alter the fundamental threat to free speech.  This is the denial of free speech, a principle that goes beyond the First Amendment. Indeed, some of us view free speech as a human right.

Consider racial or gender discrimination. It would be wrong regardless if federal law only banned such discrimination by the government. The same is true for free speech. The First Amendment is limited to government censorship, but free speech is not limited in the same way. Those of us who believe in free speech as a human right believe that it is morally wrong to deny it as either a private or governmental entity.  That does not mean that there are not differences between governmental and private actions. For example, companies may control free speech in the workplaces. They have a recognized right of free speech. However, the social media companies were created as forums for speech.  Indeed, they sought immunity on the false claim that they were not making editorial decisions or engaging viewpoint regulation.  No one is saying that these companies are breaking the law in denying free speech. We are saying that they are denying free speech as companies offering speech platforms.

That is why these seemingly harmless Birdwatchers are a concern for some of us. They are being added as a community component to an expanding system of Internet censorship. As they watch their neighbors and Twitter watches them, free speech will further decline on the Internet.

162 thoughts on “Twitter Summons “The Birdwatchers” In Expanding Campaign Against “Misinformation””

  1. JT: “The First Amendment is designed to address government restrictions on free speech. As a private entity, Twitter is not the subject of that amendment. However, private companies can still destroy free speech through private censorship. It is called the ‘Little Brother problem.’”

    You are conflating two fundamentally different actions. Government action is force. (A government is its police power.) Private action (e.g., by Twitter) is choice. Using an inapt metaphor (“Little Brother”) does not wipe out that distinction.

    If government action and private action are akin, then an orange is akin to an elephant.

    1. Twitter, as are the other related social media entities, is a monopoly. The mechanism by which they are able to destroy all competition ought to be amended. They should be regulated like a public utility to prevent the abuses seen when monopoly power is exercised. Especially now that the internet has become the dominant form of communication. It could be argued that the granting of the special 230(c)(2) privilege by the federal government establishes enough of a state nexus to be able to hold them liable for 1st Amendment violations.

  2. There is only one reason to use social media today since they all are big tech oligarchs is to make money…supply and demand always take care of markets…I no longer use these sites…other sites pop up all the time when smart folks see companies getting too big to fail and wanting to control us…the biggest criticism of Trump was his tweeting but he made that company billions and then they stabbed him in the back by removing his account…the worship or love of money is the root of all evil…big techs punishment will come sooner or later…the greatest battle ever fought was God vs Lucifer and it didn’t turn out to good for Lucifer…throughout the history of mankind there have been battles between good and evil…when the uber rich take total control of a country then it’s a numbers game…1% of the population has 99% of the wealth then the 99% revolt and take it back…or another country sees that country as low hanging fruit…game over…that’s history 101…you can tear down every statue, every monument, blow up mount Rushmore, tear down the statue of liberty, burn the flag, kneel and disrespect the flag and national anthem, tear up and burn the constitution but that changes nothing…welcome to The United Socialist/Communist States of America I hope it all turns out well but I sure have my doubts.

    1. “Trump was his tweeting but he made that company billions and then they stabbed him in the back by removing his account…the worship or love of money is the root of all evil…”

      Does not compute.

  3. Dear Professor, what the heck is an “internet originalist”? The service about which you speak is a privately owned platform and has always been so. The corporation has rules that apply to all users and the corporation has decided not to allow lies and misleading information to appear on its platform. When one decides to use the platform one has to agree to abide by the platform’s rules and those rules can change. If one wants to continue to use the platform one has to accept those rules. Don’t want to accept the rules because you’d rather lie and mislead. Don’t use the platform. It’s as simple as that. The concept of free speech involves government action to silence speech that it does not agree with or approve. Corporate behavior that limits speech though perhaps disappointing to me does not raise a constitutional free speech issue.

    Let’s face it you’re upset because Donnie is upset. You’re upset because your favorite people are being told they can’t lie and cheat anymore without consequences. You’re upset because a long string of decisions and arguments to allow corproations to do whatever they want made by the people who now want to lie and mislead are being inconvenienced.

    1. +10

      My only comment would be that the owners of Twitter may or may not accurately identify lies and misinformation.

      It’s their site. Tough luck.

  4. As usual, the “solution” to the problem makes it worse for them. “Birdwatchers” won’t be censoring anything because they will show you everything they don’t want you to see. The label of “misinformation” is a joke. Every time I want to find out what new alt-right voices to listen to, I carefully read the NYT story that tells me the important ones. I’d never hear of them otherwise. Keep it up!

  5. Censorship is always wrong, unless it’s self-censoring or parents censoring for their children using a ratings system (PG, R, etc). Private social media companies could have one strong civility rule that would help: you can post any opinion you want to but you CAN’T attack the messenger.

    Jonathan Turley’s site could do this. Criticize the message all you want, you can even state that a particular person likely violated a particular law or statute but you can’t call that person a derogatory term since you can’t debate the substance of a particular issue.

    Both parties do this, we start out insulting your favorite leader or favorite person – that automatically turns off the listener to any substantial debate. This would be far better than a private-bureaucracy or government-bureaucracy censoring citizens exercising free speech. Civility doesn’t prevent any freedom of speech on any topic.

    For example: Facebook could institute self-censoring system where users “self-rate” their own posts (R, PG, violent content, nudity, etc) as long as they don’t personally attack other users. FB users only get in trouble for not ratings their own posts. People offended can simply block or unfriendly you. Parents could set ratings filters for their children.

  6. Put twitter on a tiller. Sweep the tiller to the port side of the boat and knock twitter in the ocean.

  7. Twitter is a private company. Don’t like their rules, don’t use it..

    Other than the fact that plenty of right wingers are still on it everyday all day……. end of story.

  8. My neighbor raised in East Germany during Soviet occupation recognizes this innocent group of birdwatchers as STAZI. Chilling. There has never been a greater need for an alternative network. In China, everyone looks over the shoulder, whispers. No, it is NOT better.

  9. So all lefties will birdwatch the rest of us to tell us how wrong we all are all the time?? No thanks…they can twitter right out of America for all I care. They really will do anything to win…cheat and lie their way ….just look at the impeachment fiasco with Leahy. Not even hiding it anymore. Laughable if it weren’t the fascism we have been told the other side was..

  10. Turley seems to be getting on the conspiracy theory bandwagon.

    Turley claims to be, “an Internet originalist” meaning he fully supports an internet where anything goes. Problem is he’s a hypocrite. He doesn’t practice what he preaches. Turley’s own blog is known for removing posts that “go too far”, but he believes there’s really no such thing. Mmmm….I once posted a challenge to anyone here to just go ahead and post a truly offensive comment laden with expletives and see truly how Turley truly accepts the notion that free speech is as he claims it should be.

    Furthermore there’s a difference between free speech and malicious speech that is intended to deliberately misinform. What Turley says the proper antidote for such speech is more speech against it. He’s right, but even that has its limits. What Turley seems to support suggests that anti defamation laws and libel laws really shouldn’t exist because they are a form of censorship.

    I could comment constantly on Twitter and Facebook that Turley is a pedophile to the point where it becomes a fact on Twitter and Facebook. Turley is saying here that the growing misinformation spread by others shouldn’t be censored. Heck, according to Turley it shouldn’t even be taken to court because it would be an attack on free speech. It would be an effort to silence an opposing view.

    He would have to sue Twitter to shut me down for…spreading misinformation. Because it’s damaging to his reputation or credibility. But he doesn’t see others who spread misinformation about voter fraud that is damaging the integrity of an election, which was proven to be false multiple times as…censorship. There’s no difference between the two. Turley would have to accept that misinformation of him being a pedophile protected from censorship. Something tells me Turley would be perfectly ok with Twitter or Facebook censoring me.

    1. I consider this a classic case of false equivalence in argument. Slander does not equate with political difference, opposition viewpoint. Wake up. You’re about to lose your right to have any opinion at all expressed aloud.

      1. BetsyL, I have to respectfully disagree. I would question whether slander can be considered misinformation. Based on what Turley says is his belief, slander should be a protected form of free speech. The president himself engaged in such speech multiple times. Turley didn’t think it as something to strongly criticize or point out the distinction.

        I don’t advocate for people to stander everyone, but Turley’s love of free speech seems to be of the extreme variety.

    2. Svelaz, I agree with you. Turley and his paymaster Fox News are lying about Big Media wanting to deplatform unpopular views. They want to refuse to broadcast liars who do so knowingly and deliberately. They cannot in good conscience have a hand in spreading false information. If liars want to lie, let them find an outlet which will publish them, but no one has a right to use someone else’s technology to spread their lies.

      To this day, Turley continues to gaslight his readers that Trump and his enablers were acting in good faith to contest the electoral count. He will not concede that Trump and his employer Fox News lied for weeks about the election being stolen. Turley claims that he did not believe that there was sufficient fraud to overturn the election, but he remained silent when he appeared on Hannity and Ingraham and other Fox shows which repeated that lie repeatedly. It is shameful, and he knows it which explains why he will not now acknowledge it now.

      I suspect the Republicans are fearful of the Impeachment trial because evidence will be presented showing how many spewed the Big Lie and how many fostered it by remaining silent in the face of it or pretending as did Turley that the liars were acting in good faith. Turley never fails to compare Fox’s/Trump’s StoptheSteal campaign to the time a number of Democrats objected before Congress about electoral count integrity. Turley pretends that Democrats have no moral standing to complain about Trump’s conduct because the Democrats did it too. But the 2 are not comparable in the least- one was a symbolic objection in the House of Representatives that hardly made the news while the other was a full blown media campaign which resulted in an attempted insurrection!

      1. Ha! Ha! Silberman attempts to gaslight the readers (and maybe himself as well if he really believes what he wrote). He must be unable to view all the videos online that show proof that Democrats and yes, Fox News competitors, want to deplatform (indeed, wipe out) “unpopular” views.

  11. Question: If more than 2 people are shooting the bird at Twitter, is it called a “covey” or a “bevy” of middle fingers?

  12. You are wholly correct. The narratives espoused by Twitter, Facebook and the like, Social Media and Big Media “responses” are carefully crafted to deflect and mislead our population into thinking these companies don’t have to be accountable for protecting certain political allies or controlling negative information about them. What a sham!

  13. I like how you blamed Trump. Trump was a victim of censorship, not its proponent, but I get that facts are icky. So what I want to know is what’s the next step after the kapos, er, “birdwatchers” identify “misleading content.” What’s the punishment? Take away college degrees? Confiscate assets? All of the above? The big question is, how long do we have before they load us onto the cattle cars?

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