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Home > Sunday Mid Day News > X users dissect the platforms new Community Notes feature share pros and cons

X users dissect the platform's new Community Notes feature, share pros and cons

Updated on: 14 April,2024 06:40 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Neerja Deodhar |

As X rolls out Community Notes in India, users line up to fact-check, tackle misinformation and fill gaps. Driven to make social media a safer place, they tell mid-day about the feature’s advantages and limitations

X users dissect the platform's new Community Notes feature, share pros and cons

Venkata Satish Guttula, Siddharth Singh and Kalim Ahmed

Priyans Murarka feels passionate about a number of subjects, whether it is air quality—an issue tackled by his company, ActiveBuildings; or electric vehicles (EVs) and India’s growing interest in them. He is the face behind an active account on X which connects EV owners and enthusiasts, and tracks the latest developments. Memes, GIFs, pie charts and maps—the co-founder uses them all to simplify the conversation around these new-age cars.

As he scrolls through his timeline, Murarka sometimes wades into murky territory—inaccurate arguments about pollution in Mumbai vs Delhi, and fake news about EVs. As a frustrated subject matter expert, he wished he could issue corrections, so others on X would walk away with a more accurate understanding of things. And now he can—through the platform’s Community Notes (CN) feature.

CNs are digital post-its slapped onto tweets, in a bid to offer more context, clarity, correct inaccuracies and dispel misinformation. These notes aren’t written by X but rather users—an approach quite unlike typical content moderation systems followed by social media platforms. They rely on third-party companies to review problematic posts; CN allows users to be the vigilantes of their timelines.

The pilot test of the feature revealed that the majority found CNs helpful, and 20 to 40 per cent were less likely to agree with misleading posts after being exposed to a note. People like us—non-experts, essentially—will lead the charge (provided we ourselves have not violated X’s rules of late). X is not alone in this approach; Wikipedia and Reddit are powered by a similar ethos of crowdsourcing and collaboration. As the social media giant unveils the feature in India, users like Murarka have keenly signed up to be contributors, many of whom hope that it will help counter misinformation in the run-up to the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Venkata Satish Guttula, whose application was approved last week, has long been concerned about how rapidly fake news can spread, often outpacing the dissemination of the truth. The cyber security consultant quotes the iconic Mark Twain maxim: A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting its shoes on.

Guttula highlights that in most cases, CNs kick in after posts with fake news have gone viral. By the time the note is attached to a particular post, thousands of users have already absorbed and accepted the fake information as truth, and reposted it to their own followers. “When a Note is added to a post debunking it, the app should show the Note to everyone who read the post before,” he opines. 

Archit Mehta, a scholar at Georgetown University (USA), was curious to understand how the feature works. After his application was approved, Mehta—like other users—has had to rate Notes written by others before he can write his own. “X should clearly state how many Notes one has to rate before reaching the desired Rating Impact,” says Mehta, who was formerly a journalist in India. If this detail is not specified, users could perceive the CNs process as arbitrary and feel discouraged to participate as contributors, he says.

A Master’s student at the University’s Communication, Culture, and Technology program, Mehta has observed certain design flaws in the feature. At present, Notes appear below posts, which means X users are likely to read the contents of the post before they are made aware of missing context or corrections. “If the objective is to ensure corrections are viewed first, CNs should be placed on top,” he recommends. Mehta turns our attention to another gap: We don’t know how many people actually end up reading or even viewing Notes on their timelines. In a post that has earned 19.6 million views, controversial influencer Andrew Tate cries foul about a cyber attack on the ship that crashed into Baltimore bridge in March—mere speculation questioned by an accompanying Note. “X should share metrics of engagement on CNs so that there is greater transparency,” he says.

Energy and climate policy expert Siddharth Singh, too, wants to play a part in the fight against misinformation in India, which he describes as being weaponised and “spread on an industry scale”. Singh acknowledges the feature’s limitations as well as its possible strengths. “I understand this feature can be misused, especially when used by masses to gang up on individuals,” says Singh, author of The Great Smog of India, “However, I will reserve judgement on how it works in India until it truly rolls out. In balance, having CN as a feature is better than its absence.”

“CN will only be successful if the context it produces is found to be helpful and appropriate by a wide range of people with diverse views. This won’t be true if it can be taken over by a single group or ideology, or used in an abusive manner,” reads an answer on X’s FAQ sheet about the feature. The social media giant even has a document on the need for a ‘Diversity of perspectives’; that a Note’s usefulness is defined by whether people across the political spectrum, across differing ideologies, resonate with it.

Open source researcher and investigator, Kalim Ahmed says that it is an oversimplification of things, having observed attempts by Indian political influencers to game the system. Key to this manipulation and abuse is X’s invitation to users to rate CNs as helpful or not helpful. Ahmed alerts us to a potentially harmful situation, where bad-faith actors may direct their followers to a CN they have written to target another user, urging them to rate the Note as being helpful. There is also a lack of clarity on how X may respond if governments—like ordinary users—seek additional reviews about CNs to their own posts that they disagree with, or even order the platform to take them down.

“Just because the owner of X has some good intentions, it doesn’t necessarily convert into good execution,” says Ahmed. “India is one of X’s largest markets, and this will be the real test for CNs, where certain parties have unlimited resources to deploy on command.” He commends X for making the CN source code public, and that its data can also be downloaded to conduct long-term studies, to gauge the feature’s impact. “Like any other social media feature, it has its pros and cons, but it is definitely not the one-stop solution that Musk wants us to believe,” Ahmed concludes.

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