On Wednesday evening, Twitter began stripping the verified badges from a set of mostly far-right users such as the English Defence League’s former leader Tommy Robinson and US alt-right figurehead Richard Spencer.
The de-verification was part of a “review” of verfied accounts to exclude those that Twitter believes have broken a new set of guidelines against behaviour such as “promoting hate and/or violence”, supporting hate groups and “inciting or engaging in harassment of others”.
Those who suddenly found themselves without that little white-on-blue tick – which is meant to signify someone is who they say they are – cried censorship. Of course, they did so on the platform they claimed was censoring them.
Under more normal circumstances the sight of proto-fascist commentators adapting the “first they came for” poem written in response to Nazi persecution would be funny. In a world where neo-Nazis regularly march through the streets of the US, it’s not quite so much of a laugh.
Twitter’s decision to take away what is seen as a mark of approval from people who use the platform to stir up hatred is on one level a very good thing. Many of those targeted regularly use Twitter to stir up hatred, and very often spread disinformation with malign intentions. The scale of the move also seems promising after the failure of Twitter’s mostly ad hoc approach to tackling abuse on its platform.
And yet, both the company’s ability to simply take away the authority it has bestowed, and the fact it had the power to bestow it the first place, underline the way big tech platforms have radically changed the way trust and authority work online.
The verification system was of course designed to help solve the problem of people being dishonest online about their identities – the fact that “on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”.
Coincidentally a reminder of the pitfalls of online anonymity had played out only hours earlier during the first stages of the coup in Zimbabwe. The BBC, in both articles and Radio 4’s Today programme, quoted an account purporting to be the official mouthpiece of now-deposed despot Robert Mugabe’s ruling Zanu PF. The fact it wasn’t verified should have at least given pause for thought, enough time perhaps to search through the account’s tweeting history and see a range of posts indicating it was almost certainly a parody account.
But even if verification has proved a useful way of indicating that someone is probably who they are, it’s impossible to disentangle from the assumed endorsement that any kind of exclusive mark provides, and the highly sought after status boost it provides. Something Twitter itself acknowledged:
2 / Verification has long been perceived as an endorsement. We gave verified accounts visual prominence on the service which deepened this perception. We should have addressed this earlier but did not prioritize the work as we should have.
— Twitter Support (@TwitterSupport) November 15, 2017
As so often with the modern world, web comic XCD gets to the heart of the problem.
— XKCD Comic (@xkcdComic) November 10, 2017
Twitter of course means well. It’s trying to clean up the noise and disinformation on the system it built. But the problem isn’t the intention, it’s the concentration of power in the hands of just one organisation, with one set of goals and one culture.
It’s not unique to Twitter – it hits almost all dominant online platforms and is perhaps most acute with Facebook, which only this morning began trialing its own “trust indicators” on news articles.
The point about these platforms is that they, and only they, control the environment in which we are all competing for trust.
It wasn’t always like this – even online. Both in the early days of the web, and before it, the intangible assets of trustworthiness and authority were derived from a more complex environment. Yes, being on a TV channel or writing in a newspaper provided a base level of authority, but there was competition between those sources and between the individuals using them. It was messy and imperfect, but at least a heterogeneous combination of people and organisations were deciding who and what should be trusted.
But on Facebook and Twitter ultimate control has passed to single opaque organisations that set all the rules themselves, and can change the game with the flick of a switch. It’s great that Twitter is trying to ensure it isn’t accidentally giving some of its worst users a stamp of approval – but it would a lot better if it wasn’t in charge of handing them out in the first place.