Twitter’s New Verification Process is a Game Rigged Against Its Marginalized Users

Verification fragments an open platform based on social hierarchy and provides rewards and treatment accordingly.

by Veve Jaffa on August 15th, 2016

To the delight of users vying for verified status — once exclusively afforded to public figures and celebrities — Twitter recently announced an application process open to all 310 million of its users. First rolled out in 2009 to combat celebrity impersonation, verification now offers Twitter’s lesser-known users the chance to elevate their status… but while anyone can apply, the venerable blue checkmarks are still awarded at Twitter’s discretion, inviting users to volunteer their personal information for the mere hope of upgrading their public image and gaining access to improved tools.

Twitter is a notoriously unsafe platform. For Twitter’s most targeted users – women, trans people, people of colour, sex workers – verification may seem like the most effective route to a safer experience, offering upgraded safety features like a “quality filter” that removes abusive tweets from the UI. However, verification does nothing to address Twitter’s clear bias in prioritizing users who already possess the privilege not to be targets of harassment in the first place, nor does it improve the safety of users whose online presence falls outside of Twitter’s nebulous definition of “public interest.” Borrowing from the game industry’s use of behavioural psychology to encourage and manipulate user participation, Twitter gamifies its verification process, drawing attention away from the requirement to surrender sensitive personal information and the risks it poses to marginalized users in particular. Since all the personal information needed to cause serious damage are provided during the verification process, this carries with it a higher risk of phishing and doxxing attacks, while making verification itself particularly inaccessible to many trans people, sex workers, victims of domestic violence and stalking, and other marginalized users whose chosen name isn’t reflected in their legal identification. With these realities in mind, verified status hints at a troubling fate for the future of online security and user safety on an already dangerously lacking platform.

Safety as Reward, Not Feature

A sticker on a metal pipe that reads "Safe?" in bold letters.

Photo CC-BY Retinafunk.

With additional safety measures exclusively available to verified users, Twitter communicates a clear message that safety is not a basic feature of the social media platform, but rather a status symbol to be won. Marginalized users must weigh placing their privacy and safety in the hands of a corporation against the desire to exist in a harassment-free space.

For years, authentication-obsessed social media platforms like Facebook have cost marginalized users their privacy, safety and dignity with “real name policies” making their online interactions needlessly hostile and inaccessible, punishing those most in need of safety and privacy online. The almost perverse obsession with online authenticity we see across platforms has little to do with preventing impersonation, and a lot to do with punishing and policing those whose safety is violated by real name policies. Twitter’s verification policy is no different, privileging those who can safely and readily exchange their personal information with little to no worry of Twitter discriminating against them or abusing their privacy for corporate gain. Some say the open applications to verification means those exclusive safety features are available to a wider group of users, but the barrier to verification itself is a formidable one.

As danah boyd writes, “There is no universal context, no matter how many times geeks want to tell you that you can be one person to everyone at every point. But just because people are doing what it takes to be appropriate in different contexts, to protect their safety, and to make certain that they are not judged out of context, doesn’t mean that everyone is a huckster. Rather, people are responsibly and reasonably responding to the structural conditions of these new media. And there’s nothing acceptable about those who are most privileged and powerful telling those who aren’t that it’s OK for their safety to be undermined. And you don’t guarantee safety by stopping people from using pseudonyms, but you do undermine people’s safety by doing so. Thus, from my perspective, enforcing ‘real names’ policies in online spaces is an abuse of power.”

Sex workers, trans people, performers, people fleeing abusive situations and hiding from stalkers – their realities don’t hold up to Twitter’s need for identity authentication, a requirement that completely erases the experiences of millions of its users and excludes those most in need of a safe platform.

Complicity Through Play

Pale, smooth and shiny Go pieces in a wooden bowl.

Photo CC-BY liz west.

Relying on the expertise of behavioural psychologists, games companies make use of myriad psychological tactics to keep players invested in winning, or equally determined to avoid losing. Twitter’s new verification process employs the same techniques: to start, Twitter’s offer of better safety with verification relies on loss aversion, raising the stakes for users desperate for online protection. The reasonable expectation for user safety is exploited to sell verification, posing it as a simpler and more satisfying solution than the complex and arduous battle of improving overall online safety. Gamifying access reframes the issue from a widespread systemic problem in need of fixing, to an individual pursuit of greatness.

Designed as a goal-oriented platform, Twitter is built on the classic game objective to acquire a high score. In this instance, the higher the follower count, the more rewards in the form of social capital, influence, and even financial benefits. While verification is afforded to public figures, it doesn’t necessarily mean verified accounts will possess high followings. However, verified status comes with a host of tools to grow your following quickly and effectively. In a document sent to newly verified users called “How to Tweet Effectively,” Twitter provides verified users with a list of tips and hacks to increase their following, with advice like “Live-tweeting a relevant event can increase your daily follower rate by 260%.” Verification also comes with strong encouragement to follow other verified accounts, claiming it proves ‘trustworthiness’ – a statement that embraces verified status as an isolated social hierarchy, while casting distrust on those outside of this elite bubble. Verification then both increases the likelihood of successfully reaching the platform’s ultimate goal –  a substantial following – and reinforces the value of manufactured scarcity. With verified accounts making up less than 1% of Twitter’s user base, scarcity and competition play big into compelling users to voluntarily relinquish their privacy.  

The focus on convincing users to apply, regardless of whether it results in verification or not, stands in stark contrast to Twitter’s hesitancy to hold abusers accountable with the same psychological tactics. Despite listing consequences in their guidelines including revocation of verified status or a user’s account altogether, Twitter rarely employs them. Twitter’s ‘about verification page’ declares: “A verified badge does not imply an endorsement by Twitter”, but this claim has been undermined by their bias towards certain verified users too many times to be sincere.

The inclusion of verification exists first and foremost to uphold social stratification, and as such there is an intrinsic link between pre-existing social privilege and safety and status afforded to Twitter’s verified users. While Twitter is infamous for providing a consequence-free platform for harassment, the few times they act on reports of abuse reveal their bias towards protecting white supremacist and patriarchal hate speech. As Twitter’s recent permanent ban of alt-right bigot and provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos proves, years of victims reporting his widespread abuse were of little importance to Twitter staff before he incited harassment targeting actor Leslie Jones – who like Yiannopoulos, also possesses a verified account and made a public call for Twitter to provide better safety guidelines. No doubt pressured by the sizeable platform of his latest victim, Twitter finally followed through on a permanent ban that according to the service’s own safety guidelines should have been enacted long ago. While Milo’s verified status and social privilege incubated him from repercussions for 2 years, in contrast, Azealia Banks’ account was suspended mere hours after reports of racist comments directed at Zayn Malik. The immediacy with which Twitter acted on reports of Bank’s misconduct prove they are indeed capable of acting swiftly to put an end to harassment. So why did her suspension come within mere hours of complaints and Milo was given free run of the platform for two years while thousands reported him for abuse? It’s clear, regardless of wealth, talent, following, or clout, if you’re a verified white man on Twitter, your hate speech will be protected more emphatically than marginalized user’s safety.

Unverified, Still Authentic

A set chess board, highlighting the Rook, Horse and pawns.

Photo CC-BY Edith Soto.

Even as verification is now open for all to apply, Twitter’s questionable criteria for what is considered a person of ‘public interest’ only serves to further establish and assert harmful social hierarchies based on race, class, gender, and profession. While verification can be a useful tool to differentiate between a famous person and impersonators, that’s pretty much where the purposeful need for verification stops. Verification fragments an open platform based on social hierarchy and provides rewards and treatment accordingly. Manipulating user focus towards personal achievement and award acquisition stalls and misdirects all progress and awareness gained during Leslie Jones’ public call for change. People who wish to continue using Twitter as a platform to abuse and harass will not get verified, instead opting for the anonymous veil of egghood to obfuscate their identity. Blue checkmark-bearing accounts belonging to right wing provocateurs like Milo or Donald Trump will continue to exist, supported by Twitter’s infrastructure towards ‘authentic’ identities known for public notoriety regardless of context. These, of course, are the same verified users responsible for inciting and encouraging the creation of thousands of anonymous accounts made with the explicit goal to harass Twitter users free of consequences.

If public bigotry is the source of a verified user’s notoriety, providing them a public platform – and a protected one at that –  reveals that verification tending towards the protection of harassers is a feature of the system, not a bug. As long as Twitter continues to provide a platform for hate speech – and further emboldens those with pre-existing privilege by offering hierarchal, status-based user upgrades for their notoriety – harassment will continue to be a rampant issue on Twitter… and one which a simple game of elitist competition cannot mask.