We live in an age of fake news. The coin may have been coined by US President Donald Trump, who has plenty of detractors, but there’s no doubt that misinformation is being spread further and faster than it ever has before. As the old saying goes, a lie can travel around the world before the truth can get its boots on. Social media companies and communications providers have been under pressure from national governments to do something about the rapid spread of misinformation for some time, and now Twitter is taking steps to slow it down.
Twitter isn’t the first social media giant to attempt to stem the flow of made up stories or misleading headlines. Earlier this year, WhatsApp – which is owned by Facebook – introduced an upper limit on the number of times that a message could be forwarded from one person to another within its system. The new restriction, which was introduced in April, was designed to prevent poor medical advice being circulated between groups of friends, or introduced maliciously by one person and then passed on by people who were unaware of the malicious intent. Although the company is still gathering data about the effectiveness of the new limit, they’re upbeat about its chances of reducing the impact of fake news.
While stopping messages from spreading too far unchecked on WhatsApp is one thing, doing the same thing on Twitter is quite another. WhatsApp is a closed forum, where messages can only be read by the user or users that they’re sent to. Twitter is a public forum, where a message can be read by all of the millions of users who take to the platform every day to share their news and views, and find out what the world is talking about. The fastest way that information spreads on Twitter is through Re-Tweets – and so that’s where the company is stepping in and asking users to think twice before hitting the button.
As many psychologists have observed in recent years, getting ‘likes’ and ‘Re-Tweets’ on social media can be addictive. It appeals to the same parts of our brains that are stimulated by playing online slots. Even the methodology is simple. The single-press required to Re-Tweet a post is the same as the single-press ‘spin’ button you’ll find at online slots websites. Just as we get a rush of endorphins when we win anything on an Online Slots UK – which is the reason we keep coming back to them – we get a rush of endorphins when our social media messages receive positive attention. If we get addicted to that feeling, we can become prone to Re-Tweeting things and reposting things to get those ‘likes’ even if we haven’t fully read the content of whatever it is we’re amplifying with our Re-Tweets.
Effective immediately, Twitter users who access the platform through Android mobile phone handsets will see a query pop up if they attempt to Re-Tweet an article that they haven’t read. In news that’s likely to alarm privacy campaigners, Twitter can determine whether or not a user has clicked on an article to read it before hitting the Re-Tweet button. To put it another way, Twitter knows what you’re reading off-site if you click on links inside Tweets. The privacy debate is another matter for another day, though. For now, the pop up will intervene when it believes that you’re about to broadcast news that you can’t possibly have read or digested yourself. The new process is only applicable to users who view the website in the English language. At the time of writing, there’s no news on if or when Twitter plans to introduce the new system to other platforms, or to non-English speakers.
It’s hoped that the process will limit the number of Tweets containing misinformation that go viral on the platform. If a factually incorrect Tweet includes a hashtag and is Re-Tweeted multiple times without being challenged, the hashtag begins to trend, and other users then start to weigh in on the issue, sometimes unaware of the fact that they’re discussing a fake news story. The problem is amplified by the existence of bot accounts, which remain a severe problem on Twitter despite numerous attempts to eradicate them. While the idea of sharing news articles that you haven’t read may seem absurd to some people, a study on the matter carried out by America’s Columbia University in 2016 revealed that just under 60% of all the links posted on Twitter are never clicked on by anybody. It appears that the desire of the human race to share news exceeds its desire to actually read it.
The move is just one of several recent adjustments made by Twitter with the intention of making the platform a more pleasant, controllable environment for its users. In May, the company finally allowed users to hide specific replies to their Tweets if they didn’t want other users to be able to see them, and also selectively limit who could reply to their Tweets. In the past, the only options a user had were to lock down their accounts and only allow people who follow them to see and respond to their Tweets, or to leave their Tweets open to the world at large. There’s still no ‘edit’ button – a feature that Twitter users have been demanding for almost a decade – but it’s pleasing to see the company taking at least some of its constant user feedback into account when putting together new features.
It should be noted that while the new pop-up feature will ask users whether they’ve read an article before they Re-Tweet it, and whether they genuinely want to pass it on to their followers or not, it doesn’t go as far as preventing someone who hasn’t read an article from Re-Tweeting it anyway. If the users don’t care that they haven’t read the article and want to share it anyway, they’ll be able to do so after they’ve responded to the attempted pop-up intervention. Twitter isn’t currently interested in actively preventing users from sharing things they haven’t read – they just want to introduce a ‘point of friction’ in the hope that it will make people think twice. That’s a less effective ‘stopper’ than the one introduced by WhatsApp, and it remains to be seen whether it will be effective.