Opinions about Twitter verification have turned exceedingly mixed over the last year or so. There’s good reason, of course. Verification has long been an obtuse process awarded only to people Twitter considers noteworthy, and that has led to some negative interpretations of what’s going on.
The Problem with Verification
The problem with verification as it stood up until earlier this year, when Twitter pulled the plug on the whole thing, was this. In the description and requirements of how to receive verification, Twitter said that they would only verify certain accounts if they are considered noteworthy, within certain industries. This meant that a lot of businesses, even mid-sized businesses were not able to gain verification, but individuals in various public positions were.
The technical definition of noteworthy is simply “interesting, significant, or unusual.” This is the way Twitter was trying to use it. When they verified an account, it was because they considered the account to have something interesting to say. Of course, nothing in that definition says that the person has to be correct in their opinions, which is fine. You don’t want to remove verification from Kobe Bryant because he misunderstands complex algebra or something.
On the other hand, this means Twitter would verify people who expressed opinions that perhaps should not be expressed. It’s one thing to verify someone who likes the Cubs instead of the Sox, or something. It’s another thing entirely to verify someone who likes white people over black people.
See, Twitter was trying to use verification as a way to show, publicly, that an account is owned by the person who claims to own it. It was a way to verify that the user is not a fake, not trying to steal an identity or mislead anyone.
The problem with all of this is that Twitter’s verification process was spotty. It would overlook some people who probably should have received it, and gave verification to people who shouldn’t have gotten it. You can look up old lists and see verified accounts with under 1,000 followers, who haven’t posted in years, and who were never really noteworthy. Meanwhile high profile journalists would be ignored when they applied.
When verification goes to people Twitter seems to want to promote, it no longer becomes about identity verification or about noteworthiness. Instead, it becomes about giving validation to a voice or opinion. This is fine when the opinion is something like “the earth is round.” It’s another thing entirely when the opinion is “women shouldn’t have the right to vote.”
Racism and Terms of Service
Twitter has a lot of rules about the kinds of content that is appropriate for their platform. They have rules, as do many social networks and other community websites, against various forms of racism, hate speech, and discrimination.
Before anyone complains about free speech, it’s worth noting here that freedom of speech is simply the freedom to express your opinions without fear of repercussions from the government. You can criticize the president without being arrested for doing so.
Freedom of speech does not protect you when you make reasonable threats against the government. Saying you want to shoot the president is not acceptable, and can get you investigated, arrested, and charged if the suspicion is that you’re planning to and capable of carrying out your threat.
Freedom of speech also does not protect you from the actions of a private company. Twitter is a private company. If they say that racism is a bannable offense, and you post racist comments, Twitter can ban you. They are 100% within their rights and falling back to the first amendment won’t protect you. You have no legal grounds to stand on to sue them, either.
It’s the same way that freedom of speech doesn’t protect you from setting up a podium in front of your local strip mall and shouting about how Mexicans need to get out of the country. You can be removed from private property and arrested for various charges if you do so.
Freedom of speech also does not protect you from the actions of private citizens. Of course, if a private citizen punches you or shoots you or something, you have various assault charges you can fall back on, but infringing on your right to free speech is not one of them.
So Twitter can, within their rights, ban types of speech they don’t like. Racism, hate speech, bullying, threats, derogatory comments, discrimination, and comments that violate various laws can all cause you to be banned from the platform.
This is fine, except for one thing. Twitter repeatedly allowed such comments on their site, despite hundreds or thousands of reports. Moreover, Twitter not just avoided banning those people, they verified them. People like pedophile-defender Milo Yiannopoulos, white supremacist Richard Spencer, and the man who organized the rally that killed a woman in Charlottesville, Jason Kessler, were all at one point verified. To this day, several of them are not banned from the site, though their verification has been removed.
Jack Dorsey, CEO of Twitter, has retweeted Russian propaganda trolls and follows accounts like Stefan Molyneux, Mike Cernovich, and other clear racists, alt-right activists, and perpetrators of hate speech. Sure, he also follows survivors of the Parkland shootings and plenty of more liberal-leaning accounts, but who cares? Following a feminist doesn’t make it any better that you also follow a member of the KKK, especially when the rules of your own site indicate that you should ban them. You can check any relationship you like, by the way, with a relationship checker.
Twitter has since stopped verifying anyone at all, at least outside of extremely prominent politicians and other such public figures. They removed the verification form, and even the page with verification requirements.
The Future of Verification
Twitter’s removal of verification is ostensibly so that they can revamp the entire system. Their initial intent, to provide a verification of identity, could be an admirable goal. In fact, the problem with verification has always been that it is not open to everyone.
See, when verification is scarce and only awarded to people considered noteworthy, it becomes an endorsement. If you are verified, you are noteworthy. If verification is open to anyone, it becomes a mechanical identifier. It’s no longer a description of voice; it’s just an indicator that you’re not a false account.
In fact, broad-spectrum verification of identity is a good idea in the wake of the 2016 and onwards issues with Russian propaganda bots and other fake accounts used to propagate fake news. An account made in Russia pretending to be a teenager from Ohio isn’t going to be able to receive verification, and their opinions can thus be discarded.
At least, that would be the ideal. There are, as always, flaws with such a plan.
For one thing, just because anyone can be verified, doesn’t mean everyone will take the necessary steps to verify themselves. There are plenty of people who wouldn’t necessarily want their identity tied to their Twitter account, particularly because of the issues with stalking, threats, and bullying that take place on the site. Sure, Twitter might claim they’re keeping verification information safe, or not saving it at all, but it’s still an open door to tying one name to another, which can lead to negative repercussions.
This is also an issue if verification forces the public visibility of a real name or other identifier. This has a wide range of potential negative implications. Trans people who have not yet changed their legal name, or been unable to do so, would be caught in a tough situation. Anyone subject to harassment – which can be virtually anyone these days – might not want their real name attached, to avoid problems.
And don’t think problems are just spam and empty threats. Remember that doxxing can lead from a single username to photos of your house, threats to your phone in the middle of the night, and even threats against family members. On top of that, doxxing can lead to “swatting”, which can and has led to death. Do you think Twitter wants to be directly responsible for enforcing the piece of information that led to someone dying?
Secondly, you better believe that the Russian propaganda machine is not going to be daunted. They will happily hack verified accounts, commit identity theft to verify their own bots, and otherwise undermine the entire platform. Unless verification is heavily policed for such issues – and such falsely verified accounts are immediately removed – the whole system fails.
Third, you have to figure out what constitutes verification of identity. If you have to send in a drivers license, that hurts people who don’t have one. If any state ID works, you have to have access to state ID databases to confirm that the ID is real. I could photoshop up a picture of a state ID with any name I wanted right now; if they can’t prove it’s fake and I get verification because of it, the system has failed.
On top of that, you have to remember that Twitter is a global platform. People around the world use it, including people from countries that don’t have accessible ID systems. Hell, people buy Korean social security numbers just to play online games; there’s no way to prevent an identity black market just for Twitter verification.
Fourth, you have to consider what happens if one person has a valid reason to have more than one verified account. I could have my own name verified, as well as the names of each of my businesses; do those businesses get verification based on business licenses, or based on my identity as CEO and owner? If it’s a business license, what’s to stop someone from paying the minimal fee to register some random LLC and verifying an account that way? That’s another means of abuse that fake news accounts could access as well. Fake companies are a huge problem already, among copyright trolls and other abuses.
Is It A Good Idea?
Make no mistake. Twitter is definitely thinking about it. Jack himself mentioned it in a Periscope stream not all that long ago, that Twitter is trying to solve all of these problems.
At least, that’s what you would think. I’m skeptical given the past history of Twitter. Jack says they’re trying to find a way to open verification to everyone, to devalue it as an indicator of endorsement and to make it an indicator of identity, nothing more.
The problem is, Jack doesn’t say anything about these various issues, and others I haven’t even thought of. I guarantee you there are more. If Twitter simply opens up verification as it was, verified accounts will need their real names, which opens up all manner of issues.
I, frankly, don’t trust Twitter to solve these problems with whatever solution they roll out. They might cover a couple of them, but Twitter has so many issues with blatant violations of their terms of service that go unanswered that to expect the verification process to take things like the legal names of transgender people into account is wishful thinking at best.
Honestly, if Twitter could implement verification in a way that was both valid and not itself somehow discriminatory against marginalized groups, it would be ideal. Identity verification, done properly, can help prevent fake accounts and fake news, the likes of which influenced the 2016 election and more aspects of global politics besides.
The problem is, until Twitter is capable of cleaning up their site and removing the elements of hatred and falsehood that make it so dangerous in the first place, any verification system they use will be flawed at best.
Will Twitter pull it off? That remains to be seen. I would guess that they are going to rush to push out some kind of verification system before the end of the year, and I would guess that at least three of the issues I listed above will be very much present. Maybe it will be refined and made more inclusive after the fact, but given Twitter’s track record, I’m not hopeful.