In 2009, Twitter began placing a blue check mark on accounts of users whose identities had been verified -- a way to help distinguish legitimate accounts from bogus ones. (Shutterstock/GongTo)
Twitter Inc. halted a system for verifying user identity, calling it “broken" after the process became seen as a stamp of approval for trolls, white supremacists and others disseminating hateful speech online.
In 2009, Twitter began placing a blue check mark on accounts of users whose identities had been verified -- a way to help distinguish legitimate accounts from bogus ones. The social-media company drew criticism for the process this week after it verified the account of Jason Kessler, who is credited with orchestrating the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August.
Twitter originally verified accounts of “public interests,” such as journalists, public figures and celebrities. Many have interpreted the policy to mean that verification is an indicator of importance. The company has come under criticism for unclear disclosure of how verification is determined and inconsistent application of the marker.
“Verification was meant to authenticate identity & voice but it is interpreted as an endorsement,” Twitter’s user support division wrote in a tweet on Thursday. “We recognize that we have created this confusion and need to resolve it.”
Twitter Chief Executive Officer Jack Dorsey also weighed in, saying management should have communicated more quickly on its plans to fix the system. “Our agents have been following our verification policy correctly, but we realized some time ago the system is broken and needs to be reconsidered," Dorsey wrote on his account. "We failed by not doing anything about it.”
The controversy over verification is just the latest incident to spark criticism of Twitter. U.S. President Donald Trump uses the platform to make some statements that some experts argue violate Twitter’s policies on harassment and abuse. Yet his account remains. The company has also been under the microscope for failing to prevent Russian interference on its platform during the U.S. 2016 presidential elections. The company recently testified to Congress, revealing that more than 36,000 Russian-linked accounts generated about 1.4 million automated, election-related Tweets.
In the aftermath of the Charlottesville rally, which left a counter-protester dead, Kessler used his Twitter account to call the woman, Heather Heyer, “a fat, disgusting Communist.” “Looks like it was payback time,” he wrote, according to reports.
Kessler currently tweets under the handle @TheMadDimension, and his account has a verified check mark. “Looks like I FINALLY got verified by Twitter,” he wrote Tuesday. “I must be the only working class white advocate with that distinction.”
Any user can apply for verification and Twitter has at times removed a user’s verified status. Twitter removed the blue check mark from Milo Yiannopoulos, who BuzzFeed reported worked closely with white nationalists, before banning him from the platform last year. Yiannopoulos has rejected white nationalism in multiple talks and articles, according to a statement from Alexander Macris, chief executive officer of Milo Inc., Yiannopoulos’s new business venture.
Though Twitter has suspended several high-profile accounts associated with the alt-right movement, some white supremacist accounts are still active, including Richard Spencer’s verified account.
"They’ve always said from the beginning that verification is not an endorsement, but a check mark in our culture does seem to convey that to many people," said Stephen Balkam, founder of the Family Online Safety Institute, a nonprofit that’s part of Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council. "I can understand people’s outrage over verifying someone like Jason Kessler, with a confederate flag behind him."
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who has about 553,000 followers, had his verification request denied and called the decision “absurd” on Twitter in March.
Even some Twitter’s employees acknowledge the company should have fixed the problem earlier. Ed Ho, general manager of Twitter’s consumer product and engineering group, tweeted: "We should have stopped the current process at the beginning of the year. We knew it was busted as people confuse ID verification with endorsement."