Twitter’s latest salvo in its Great Clean-Up of 2017 is a reorganizing of what it means to be verified. First, after getting a torrent of heat for giving its coveted blue checkmark to Jason Kessler, the man who organized the deadly white nationalist and neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August, the company decided Nov. 9 to suspend its verification program.
Now Twitter is going even further and revoking the verification for other prominent tweeters who are famous for their bigotry, including the famous white nationalist and neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, the alt-right activist Laura Loomer (who was recently kicked off of Uber and Lyft because of her anti-Muslim tweets), Kessler, the British anti-Muslim activist Tommy Robinson, and others. Also Tim “Treadstone” Gionet, who went by the handle Baked Alaska and formerly served as tour manager for Milo Yiannopoulos, has been banned from Twitter permanently. Yiannopoulos was permanently banned from Twitter after inciting a racist trolling campaign against the actor Leslie Jones in 2016. Gionet’s Twitter account was littered with Nazi overtones, including doctored photos depicting people he doesn’t like in gas chambers.
“Verification was meant to authenticate identity & voice but it is interpreted as an endorsement or an indicator of importance,” Twitter’s support account said last week after the outcry around the verification of Kessler. But as I pointed out then, Twitter’s verification status means content from accounts with a blue checkmark are more likely to show up in its “top tweets” results and are more likely to be captured in Google search’s Twitter bar, which populates at the top of search results during important news moments. In order to apply to be verified, users are asked to describe “their impact in their field” and provide URLs that demonstrate their newsworthiness. So sure, Twitter might say that the blue checkmark was misinterpreted as an endorsement of someone’s importance, but the process and privileges of its verification program tell a different story.
Today, Twitter admitted its policies in practice contradicted the company’s claim that verification isn’t an endorsement. “We gave verified accounts visual prominence on the service which deepened this perception,” the company tweeted Wednesday. It also rolled out new guidelines around what behavior will result in the revocation of a verified status. Now Twitter says an account may become unverified if it’s found to be “promoting hate and/or violence,” “inciting or engaging in harassment,” threatening violence, or promoting hate groups. For now, the verification program is still suspended, Twitter says, while it continues work out its new rules.
Verification on Twitter is useful. It helps users know that @realDonaldTrump is indeed President Donald Trump and that @DonaldTrump is not. Confirming that authenticity is incredibly valuable on a platform that’s infested with bots and misinformation. On Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, unhappy members of Congress grilled an attorney from the company, along with executives from Google and Facebook, about its failure to realize that Russian agents had been using its platform in an effort to manipulate Americans in the run-up to the 2016 election.
Now, to Twitter’s credit, it’s trying to do better. In October, the company shared a timeline for changes that it hopes will “make Twitter a safer place,” including the banning of hate symbols and strengthening its policy against the sharing of nonconsensual explicit images, which is commonly called revenge porn, since the people who share are often retaliatory ex-partners.
Twitter’s move to clarify the meaning of its verification badge and revoke the status for people who are famous for their racism or sexism or hate speech are great first steps. And the fact that the company appears to be systematically enforcing its new safety policies is also a giant step in the right direction. Now it’s up to Twitter to be consistent in its enforcement.