Profit, privacy and online safety: What’s at stake with Twitter verification
Issued on: 15/11/2022 – 20:26
The past week has seen Twitter announce – and quickly retract – new rules for authenticating user profiles, notably a controversial proposal to offer “blue check” verification to anyone willing to pay $8 a month. New owner Elon Musk, who on Tuesday set November 29 as the scheme’s relaunch date, has vowed that his proposed changes will democratise the policy on verified accounts and turn a profit, but the bumpy roll-out exposed a fault line at the heart of the social media platform.
Within days of taking over in October, dramatic structural changes aiming to reduce company losses were under way, chief among them plans to change the site’s account verification process.
The new Twitter Blue service, which offered a visible blue checkmark for an $8 monthly fee, was introduced as a way to add a second revenue stream in addition to advertising. But it was also designed to disrupt the platform to make it better, Musk said.
Instead of relying on internal verification processes to authenticate accounts – and limiting access to high-profile individuals and organisations – Twitter Blue would allow any of the site’s estimated global users to gain verification for a fee. Twitter Blue would “democratize journalism and empower the voice of the people”, .
‘Verification is the business’
But for many Twitter users, the changes have instead disrupted their trust in the platform. In the United States, rely on the site as a fast news source and usage spikes during notable events. The in 2009 caused a record number of tweets per second at the time. Since then, significant news – such as the death of Whitney Houston or the beginning of the US military raid that killed Osama Bin Laden – has broken on the site before being confirmed by official sources.
With hundreds of millions of tweets being sent daily, verification is at the heart of users’ ability to filter information, with the blue checkmarks working as visual shorthand to identify authentic or notable sources. Compared with other platforms, “Twitter especially provides that function of being able to separate a celebrity user or a media organisation from a parody account,” says Dr Robyn Caplan, senior researcher at the Data & Society Research Institute in New York.
“Verification is actually the business that Twitter is serving.”
Replacing the existing verification system – – with widespread access for a fee was a seismic shift in how users engaged with the platform. Especially as users posted about how to set up phony Twitter Blue accounts. “In terms of what people needed to provide to get the blue checkmarks,” Caplan says, this included “nothing that was verified”.
Parody accounts quickly multiplied, among them Jesus Christ, Rudy Guliani and LeBron James, all verified with a blue checkmark. Many traded in bleak humour. A seemingly authentic Nintendo account posted a picture of Mario giving the finger. A fake Nestlé account garnered more than 44,000 likes for a tweet proclaiming: “We steal your water and sell it back to you”. Official-looking accounts for former world leaders George W. Bush and Tony Blair tweeted their nostalgia for the Iraq war.
Twitter Blue is going about as well as everyone predicted, and it’s an amazing spectacle to watch. Like a train crash filled with glitter.
— matt ratt (@MisterRatt)
At a glance, a blue checkmark and realistic-sounding usernames made it hard to tell which accounts were authentic – with some drastic real-world consequences. As towards the point of unaffordability for many people living with diabetes in the United States, a verified account posing as pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly proclaimed that the company would start providing the drug for free.
Within hours, the tweet had racked up more than 1,500 retweets and 11,000 likes, and real Eli Lilly’s stocks fell , losing the company billions in market capitalisation.
The Tweet sparked a panic inside Eli Lilly, the Washington Post reported, with company representatives desperately trying to . The social media site, burdened by uncertainty and massive layoffs within, did not react for hours.
High-profile figures have also appealed for the need for properly verified accounts to help protect children and adults from being catfished by users posing as famous people. “I felt powerless to stop people using my name and face to scam or groom people. That’s why verification came to be,” wrote British actor Rob Kazinsky in a criticising the verification changes.
In response to changes at Twitter, Human Rights Watch issued on Saturday warning that online impersonation “can carry serious, if not fatal, consequences” for human rights defenders
The effects could also rebound on Twitter users and the company itself. “There are legal concerns to do with impersonation for individuals affected by this,” says Paul Wragg, professor of media law at the University of Leeds and co-host of the Media Law Podcast. “What could arise is defamation, libel or a misuse of private information claims, either against a person running an account or against Twitter for allowing this to happen.”
Twitter quietly suspended Twitter Blue just a few days after it was launched, but it has not officially cancelled the service and modifications to its verification process are ongoing. An “official” grey badge has been added to notable profiles, seemingly replicating the role of the former blue checkmark. On Sunday, Musk said that organisations – such as news networks – would once again be allowed to verify employees.
‘The social cost’
Changes to verification at Twitter cut to the heart of pervasive issues troubling many online platforms. Should users have to prove who they are, or be allowed to act anonymously? Is social media a medium for amplifying diverse voices, or does failing to promote expertise breed misinformation? And companies must decide whether these are issues best addressed by internal company politics or external interlocuters.
There are few easy answers. Allowing anonymity through poor or incomplete verification procedures comes with a “social cost”, says Wragg. “That is, the actual harm that’s taking place to adults and children getting caught out by fraud and scams.”
Increasing verification en masse is also an imperfect solution. “Then things like anonymity and pseudonymity on the internet would start to go away,” says Caplan. “And we know that those play a very important role for freedom of expression and privacy, especially in areas of the world where it’s really important to preserve those elements.”
There is also the evidence that revealing personal information online exposes individuals to greater levels of .
Caplan says more verification is likely if only to appease advertisers, who currently account for and who see verification as a way to reduce the risk of their ads appearing alongside offensive content.
Advertisers’ concerns may appeal to Musk, who seems keen to pursue a more aggressive approach towards profit making than his predecessors. The other notable change under his tenure has been firing around half of the company’s workforce – some 3,700 workers in total – including teams dedicated to , disability access, and reducing bias and harm.
With little consensus on how or if governments and legal bodies should intervene on social media sites, Twitter users – and their parody accounts – are so far providing the strongest resistance to change.
“People feel a real investment in how these companies are run because they’re using these platforms every single day,” Caplan says.
“There has been a big movement around things like platform accountability, because leaving everything in the hands of these companies relies on them being on your side. And what we’re seeing with Musk is that a new owner can come in and can really change the rules of the game.”
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