Twitter is abandoning an initiative that encouraged users to be more thoughtful before amplifying tweets on its platform. Back in October, the company replaced the standard retweet with a prompt asking users to quote tweet, or add their own thoughts before sharing, in hopes that doing so would lead users to share less false information. "We don't believe this happened," the company has now said in a new series of tweets.
Fewer tweets, same quality — The initiative was but one test in Twitter's greater efforts to combat misinformation during the 2020 presidential election, and early on it indicated that the results were positive. “This change slowed the spread of misleading information by virtue of an overall reduction in the amount of sharing on the service,” Twitter said in November.
It's changed its tune now, suggesting that the level of misinformation relative to overall retweets was unchanged. Retweet and quote tweet levels fell by 20 percent without increasing the quality that were left in their wake. While the use of quote tweets increased, 45 percent of them included just a single-word affirmation, and 70 percent included less than 25 characters — in other words, the forced quote tweet didn't result in many people actually adding any significant commentary to their retweet.
Decreasing the number of retweets shared overall seems positive — if Joe Shmoe stops to consider the veracity of a tweet and ends up not retweeting false information, that's a good thing. The thinking behind the product change was that retweeting is so easy that people will do it without conducting due diligence, and adding friction makes them think a bit more.
But users who are passionate about a subject and saw the quote tweet prompt were still allowed to amplify a tweet without adding anything meaningful, and that's apparently what they did. There were less retweets overall, but the discourse wasn't improved as a consequence.
And since the effort was intended to slow the spread of misinformation throughout the election, Twitter may feel now's the right time to sunset it. Facebook has said it's seen a decrease in political content shared since the election, and that may be the same for Twitter. The company says it will continue to research ways to encourage "more thoughtful amplification."
Trying is admirable — You can't knock Twitter for at least trying something to combat misinformation. Allowing anyone to share their every thought, as easily and friction-free as possible, sounded like a great, democratizing idea in the early days of social media. But as we're seeing now, it has some serious downsides as people will share ideas that are agreeable to them without doing any due diligence or fact-checking. And then false information gets shared so widely that people start to assume it's true. Twitter was willing to decrease sharing in the interest of the public good. It wasn't really effective at altering the discourse, but the company tried.
During the election, Twitter also flagged hundreds of thousands of tweets that were deemed false by third-party fact-checkers, adding an extra step for users to retweet them. And President Trump's feed was blanketed in warnings that hid the contents of his tweets until users clicked through a dialogue. He has tried to retaliate by signing an executive order to revoke liability protections afforded to social media companies, but with his administration on the way out, that seems unlikely to happen.
Antitrust lawsuits with the potential to reduce Facebook's power may have a side effect of making it easier for censorship-light social networks like Parler to compete. It's hard for advertisers to go elsewhere when Facebook has pretty much every internet user under its tent, and uses its dominance to clone alternatives.