Twitter gets in a muddle over its verified blue ticks
What does it mean when there’s a blue tick next to someone’s name on Twitter? For years, the answer seemed fairly clear: this is the person it claims to be, not a parody account so unfunny it needs the word “parody account” in the bio to let you know there’s a joke. Twitter elves behind the scenes had looked into a user’s very soul, and found convincing proof that they are who they claimed to be (barring the odd unfortunate slip-up).
Now Twitter has got itself into a muddle by insisting there’s an element of value judgement in the process. The social network has announced that it will “remove verification from accounts whose behaviour does not fall within” new guidelines related to promoting hate and/or violence, supporting hate groups and engaging in targeted harassment. A number of prominent accounts have fallen foul to this, including white nationalist Richard Spencer, and founder of the English Defence League, Tommy Robinson.
This is how Twitter justified the changes in a series of tweets last night:
Twitter finally decided to act earlier this month, after verifying the account of the organiser behind the far-right rally in Charlottesville, Jason Kessler. Giving more prominence to a largely unknown far-right agitator, who gained notoriety for organising a rally at which a protester was killed, was a step too far for rule-abiding Twitter.
For a while, Twitter’s verification worked well, even if it did create a two-class Twitter on a platform that used to be classless. Having a verified account offers a number of extra perks, including the likelihood of your message appearing higher up in searches, and so forth. It also comes with extra filtering options, given the likelihood that verified accounts get more grief than their unverified counterparts. It’s not clear whether the blue tick causes a red mist, whether people notable enough to be verified are more likely to attract vitriol or a combination of the two.
But Twitter blurred the lines between “utility” and “perk” when it took away Milo Yiannopoulos’ blue tick for breaking Twitter’s terms of service. Removal of the verified status was like a slap on the wrist, rather than a ban – which it would eventually hand down to Yiannopoulos five months later.
Some people are taking the removal of a 23 x 23-pixel badge really well.
But buried deep in this ludicrous textbook example of Godwin’s law, there’s the distant shape of something approaching a half-decent point, which is this: a blue tick can either be a dispassionate mark of identity, or an endorsement of someone as a person. It can’t have a foot in both camps, or else a company’s own biases will inevitably seep into the accreditation process.
And aside from that: if someone breaks Twitter’s rules, why aren’t they simply kicked off the service? It’s like taking away my Nectar card if I’m caught walking out of Sainsbury’s with a 49in 4K TV hidden under my jumper.
By attempting to provide clarity, Twitter has actually muddied the waters further. Is a blue tick a sign of authenticity, or a pat on the head for good behaviour? Donald Trump has one, despite breaking the terms and conditions on numerous occasions. So where’s the line?
I don’t know, and I doubt Twitter does either.
Image: Gareth Heath, used under Creative Commons