X, rebranded from Twitter after Elon Musk’s acquisition, has recently eliminated the option for users to report tweets containing misleading information. This alteration in policy occurs just weeks before a referendum on an Indigenous voice to parliament in Australia.
Since August 2021, users in countries such as the US, Australia, and South Korea were empowered to flag tweets they deemed misleading, a feature separate from reporting abuse or hate speech. This tool was extended to Brazil, the Philippines, and Spain in 2022. Users and the administration of X noted the importance of this feature during election periods.
Reset Australia’s Response
Digital platforms critic group, Reset Australia, expressed their discontent with this development. In an open letter, the group labelled the removal of the tool “extremely concerning,” especially given its timing before the Australian referendum.
“This is a disastrous point in time for Australia’s electoral integrity if the tool had been removed deliberately,” stated Reset Australia in their open letter.
X’s Previous Misinformation Countermeasures
The company had once championed its community notes feature, where users could fact-check a tweet. If a sufficient number of users approved it, the fact-check was added to the tweet as additional context. “To ensure that people are better informed on Twitter we launched Community Notes,” the company announced.
Tom Rogers, the AEC commissioner, openly expressed his frustration, stating, “Veiled threats against staff made on social media platforms have been difficult to remove.” A spokesperson from the AEC reassured that a direct avenue to refer content to X still exists, but admitted to a high threshold for reporting matters to social media platforms.
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Elon Musk has been vocal about pushing against censoring content on platforms since acquiring Twitter and renaming it X. This change in policy aligns with Musk’s stance, but has raised eyebrows regarding the control of misinformation. “Community Notes” is a better way of fact checking, Musk has stated, though its effectiveness is contingent on user participation and approval.
The Referendum’s Integrity at Risk
The AEC and other organisations are left in a predicament, especially given the timing of the feature’s removal. Alice Dawkins, executive director of Reset.Tech Australia, expressed, “It would be helpful to understand why X have seemingly gone backwards on their commitments to mitigating serious misinformation.” The capability of X users to counter misleading information is now limited, leaving the integrity of elections, like the forthcoming Australian referendum, in a precarious position.
Industry’s Response to Policy Change
With the removal of the reporting feature by X, the global tech industry and electoral commissions are tasked with finding alternative methods to combat misinformation. The need for efficient and effective mechanisms to counter such information is evident.
The freedom of expression balanced with the control of misinformation is in a delicate state. This policy change by X, especially on the brink of big elections, calls for reevaluating strategies to ensure that credible and factual information prevails in the public domain.
Given the context, the AEC’s words ring particularly true: “The responsiveness of the AEC on the platform is always going to be swifter and likely more effective in countering incorrect claims regarding the electoral process than the actions of platforms.”