Will the Gamification of Fact-Checking Work? Twitter Seems to Think So
Today, Twitter unveiled its latest attempt at curtailing misinformation and disinformation. The pithily named Birdwatch program is a forum in which users will discuss and provide context for claims they believe are false or misleading. While initially separate from Twitter, the company hopes to ultimately include notes on Tweets themselves, based on the pilot program work of 1,000 US users. Perhaps most interesting to Birdwatch are its attempts to cut bad-faith actions off at the pass: Birdwatch will incorporate content moderation features from Reddit and Wikipedia, and most notably will allow users to up rate or down rate each other’s notes.
If it sounds like Reddit’s upvoting and downvoting system, it’s because it's meant to. On the so-called “Front Page of the Internet,” Reddit users upvote, downvote, and award karma points for satisfactory and unsatisfactory content, often based on individual subreddit norms and values. Applying a similar system to fact-checking on a site like Twitter is a first, even though other sites have used similar tactics in the past.
Scholar Adrienne Massanari has written extensively on Reddit, as well as on its karma system. As she points out in her work, game studies is a useful framework for understanding Internet communities such as Reddit, and things like upvotes and karma reward and regulate “play.” But, as she also aptly discusses, this play is not unproblematic, and what play looks like often just upholds the status quo and ambivalence of Internet culture, particularly in that it is White, male, cisgender, and heterosexual.
With these points in mind, it is no wonder that in developing Birdwatch, Twitter has taken to classical ideas about public participation and conversation. By literally creating a forum to debate the merits of a claim, Twitter has turned Birdwatch into a marketplace of ideas. The marketplace of ideas is a legal framework for thinking about free speech. It abhors censorship and believes the best idea, or “truth” will emerge after robust debate. By debating claims and quite literally being able to help them rise through upvoting, Twitter’s approach to Birdwatch embodies the classic marketplace of idea tenets.
Scholars have pushed back on the marketplace of ideas metaphor for decades, arguing that free speech does not map onto economics. Such critiques have continued into the social media age. Additionally, the marketplace of ideas has more or less completely ignored the price of entry to public participation — women, people of color, and other marginalized groups are not always given an equal voice. It has also ignored how people are also pushed out of public life after being harassed.
So who will be the Birdwatchers? Right now, it’s first-come, first-serve. Who will be the people debating the merits and truthfulness of a claim? While Birdwatch says they’ve put fail-safes in, it’s easy to see how things could easily go sideways. While Twitter views the upvoting fact-checking as a deterrent to bad actors, they don’t seem to have taken into account how rewards and games are always political and always embroiled in larger issues and contexts.
Gamification has been on the rise in the last several years, as the ideas of competition, scoring, and rules of play have been applied to numerous areas of life, media, and technology. In general, gamification refers to game elements incorporated into non-game contexts For instance, Snapchat’s location-sharing app, Zenly, gamified shelter-in-place orders at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Users competed with each other to earn points and see who could stay home the longest.
Birdwatch’s upvoting and downvoting system is essentially the gamification of a marketplace of ideas. And while my own work has consistently critiqued the marketplace of ideas for being an outdated, racist, and sexist model of public participation, I’m equally as horrified by the gamification of it — and I think the founders of the concept would be too. The gamification of the marketplace of ideas moves the idea of collective good to individual good, focusing on who can get the most points or upvotes. It pits individuals against each other and prioritizes points over the merits of a claim. Fact-checking, then, becomes secondary to winning. And given that we know both the marketplace of idea and gamification upholds White, male, cisgender, and heterosexual positions, Birdwatch risks upholding existing inequalities and inequities in favor of being a savvy PR move.
In an era where the basic tenets of reality can’t even be agreed upon, debate is not enough. Literacy is not enough. Both literacy and debate have been weaponized to support an individual’s own claims. Additionally, literacy and debate are individual solutions to systemic problems — which is exactly what Birdwatch is. Gamification is fundamentally individualistic. People want to win. The marketplace of ideas, while claiming to be collective, is also very individualistic considering who it allows in and who it excludes. By allowing users to debate the merits of claims and reward them with gaming metrics, Twitter absolves itself from its role in the systemic problem and instead leaves it up to individuals to fight it out for a few measly upvotes.