All the King’s Tweets

The other night I made a comment that I wished Bill Gates would spend $10 billion to acquire Twitter and shut it down. IMHO, that would be worthy of a Nobel Peace Prize. The latest reason for this involves their changes to Verified accounts.

For years, exactly how someone got their Twitter account verified was a mystery. Usually if someone was famous, the theory was they would either call a friend at Twitter or show up to the office and verify they owned their twitter account, somehow. I remember a big news story about this when the president of Russia at the time, Dmitry Medvedev, visited San Francisco, visited Twitter, and his account was verified. Other times someone not as famous would bear the blue mark.

This is somewhat personal to me because during the 2011 Nymwars fiasco, when I personally stood up and said the Google Plus “real” names policy was bad and should be reformed, one of the most common pushbacks I got was along the lines of: why not add a flag of some sort to someone’s account to denote they are using a “pseudonym”? Some of my response to that included a distaste for promoting government issued names as somehow better than other names, as well as the idea that names that sound familiar (or are name-shaped) are real and funny sounding ones or not, but you can read my older posts or watch talks to learn more about that.

Case in point, when you have a community, online or offline, and you add a marker of some sort, it changes the dynamic of social relations and creates an element of reputation. For example, why do people who support causes wear ribbons on their shirts, or a colored bracelet? I remember being at a concert in Virginia shortly after the Virginia Tech massacre and seeing many people with buttons that effectively said they supported the victoms.

And now for something I’m going to make public for the first time: in 2014, I was on a RightsCon panel related to the topic of online identify and pseudonymity. One of the other panelists (who sort of lead it) was Colin Crowell, who was at the time the VP of Public Policy at Twitter (he is still at Twitter). We had a meeting at Twitter HQ before the panel to discuss what we’d cover in the panel, and at this meeting I asked him point blank what the verification status on tweets was about. He gave me a look like someone who’d heard this question a million times, and said (I paraphrase) that the sole purpose of the verification status was to prevent impersonation, nothing else; the status was generally added when an issue arose, the fraud team investigated, and decided it was an appropriate counter-measure to prevent further issues. He also added that nobody at Twitter had a verified status. Thus, for years, when this question has come up, I have generally defended Twitter, because I trusted what he told me.

However, then I saw this article on The Verge: http://www.theverge.com/2016/7/19/12227490/twitter-opening-verified-account-user-form. I was stunned because while I’d heard and seen rumors about something like this happening, they were just rumors. When I saw this, I sent an email to Crowell asking for clarification: maybe I misunderstood the article, or maybe the article was wrong. Unsurprisingly, he never replied to my email, and since then things have changed a lot. At first the verified status was a tool used to counter fraud, then it turned into a mechanism for Twitter to collect government issued IDs, and as of a couple days ago it has turned into a tool for Twitter to virtue signal and silence people they don’t like. Let me explain.

I saw this piece from the Guardian about Twitter revoking the verified status of Richard Spencer and this piece from the Verge about changes to how Twitter handles verification status. Both of these are problematic.

First, assuming that Richard Spencer actually believes the hateful things he says, it doesn’t change the fact that he is Richard Spencer. There are lot of news outlets who use Twitter as a source for stories, and they rely on the verification status to demonstrate a person is who they say they are. For example, if Hillary Clinton lost her verification status, someone else with a twitter account called Hilary Clinton (notice the one ‘l’) or other variations could start saying some hateful things, and other than context clues like number of followers, there might be no way to tell that it’s not really her. In fact, many news outlets are not allowed to cite tweets from accounts that are not verified, precisely because of the modicum of truth this status provides, therefore if Richard Spencer does do something that is noteworthy, it makes life more difficult for journalists.

Second, here are the specific issues I have with Twitter’s new guidelines. First, in their morality clause, in addition to citing all the things they don’t want you to do, they also say that supporting organizations or individuals that promote those things will also cause you problems. I’m not sure what this means. Does this mean that if you retweet a hateful thing Donald Trump says, you can be unverified?

Next, and more terrifying, the phrase “on and off Twitter” in their opening statement. Does this mean that if you are an employee of a company like Home Depot that comes under fire for something in the news, that Twitter can decide actions should be taken against you? What if there’s video of you in the stands at an NFL game and the NFL gets embroiled in controversy? Finally, what the hell does any of this have to do with demonstrating that you are who you say you are? If they are violating your policies, why not just suspend their accounts (and send them the reasons why so they can appeal if they want)?

Twitter seems to have conflated morality with verification, something that is very, very dangerous. Further, what constitutes their moral code seems to change based on the wind, and how they arbitrate it seems to change based on some combination of public opinion and the biases of twitter employees. It seems like the outrageous actions of Cloudflare CEO Matthew Prince overriding his own company’s policy and banning Daily Stormer from their service because he “woke up this morning in a bad mood.” Which is especially noteworthy given that just two years earlier he defended his inaction against ISIS customers of his service.

I’m really not sure what has gotten into Twitter. I know from talking to people from several free speech groups who used to have direct channels to resolve issues that Twitter has basically stonewalled everything. Their actions are haphazard at best, and the only appeals process seems to be getting lots of negative PR, even though that is also clearly hit or miss. I still believe what Crowell told me a few years ago, which suggests that darker more nefarious forces are at work within Twitter. I know they have been struggling to make enough money, maybe this is part of their efforts to reform their business policy, like their recent shift to 280 characters (which was a disaster)?

In any case, I’ve given up on them– anyone who looks at my Twitter profile knows this– but I do think they are another canary in the coal mine, and based on what I’ve seen, things are going to get a lot worse before they get better. Living in Germany, I’ve talked to friends who lived during the DDR days under the Staatssicherheitsdienst (aka the Stasi) and they generally describe the climate of the English speaking world as similar. Of course that was government run, and Twitter is a private company, but they do seem to have a grip on the social landscape, whereas the US government seems gridlocked. The one thing I know for sure is that this is horrible, it can’t last forever, and I hope to god it ends soon.

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