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Why Twitter’s “verified account” failure matters

The new year brought a treat for those who like to follow aging media moguls, with the launch of official Twitter accounts belonging to both News Corp. (s nws) chairman Rupert Murdoch and his wife Wendi Deng, including some awkward banter around a tweet that Murdoch later reportedly deleted (although as a commenter notes below, the original tweet remains). The only problem with the voyeuristic appeal of this exchange is that Deng wasn’t the real thing — although the account was marked as “verified,” with Twitter’s blue check mark, it was revealed to be a fake on Tuesday. A simple slip-up? Perhaps, but one that reinforces how little we know about Twitter’s verification process, something that is becoming more and more important as the service grows.

When Murdoch showed up on Twitter on December 31, there was widespread skepticism about whether it was the real News Corp. billionaire or not, despite the fact that the account was marked as verified. But a tweet from Twitter co-founder and chief product officer Jack Dorsey confirmed that it was the real Murdoch — and the “verified” check-mark, combined with the apparent back-and-forth between the Wendi Deng account and Murdoch’s, convinced many that it was also real (although some, including publishing industry veteran Michael Wolff, continued to doubt this).

How was the account verified? We don’t know

On Tuesday, however, it emerged that the Wendi Deng account had been set up as a prank by a British man, who said he “set up the account for a laugh” during the holidays, when he saw how much attention the Murdoch account was getting. The account’s creator said that he was as surprised as anyone when his account showed up with a blue check-mark, and that he hadn’t been contacted by anyone at Twitter about who he was or whether the account was for real, telling the Guardian:

I just couldn’t believe they would have verified such a high profile account without checking it out, but I absolutely received no communication from Twitter to the email address I used to register.

Twitter has refused to speak publicly about what happened with the Deng account, or to explain why it was verified and then suddenly un-verified — and the company has also repeatedly refused to talk on the record about how the verification process as a whole works, and why some accounts are chosen for verification and others aren’t. Even if the Deng verification was a simple screw-up due to reduced staffing levels over the holidays, Twitter’s radio silence on the issue makes it even harder to trust the entire process, and that could have ramifications that go beyond just the Murdoch case.

The “verified” program started with the blue check mark as a beta in 2009, primarily because a number of celebrities had complained about fake accounts pretending to be them, and the company said it wanted to help users figure out which were real. For a time, anyone could apply to have their account verified by using a form on the Twitter website, but this was later phased out and verification is now done on what the company calls a “case by case” basis, including advertisers and partners.

Twitter needs to be more transparent about the process

Given the rapid growth in Twitter’s user base, it’s not surprising that Twitter would have problems scaling a widespread verification program — and in some ways, doing this runs against the grain for the network, which has made a point of not requiring real names from users the way that Facebook and Google+ have. But even worse than having an arbitrary verification process is having one that doesn’t work properly, and one that the company is so opaque about. It’s not clear why Twitter doesn’t talk about it, but this vacuum of information is hardly conducive to gaining the trust of users.

And trust is something that Twitter needs in spades, especially as it grows and becomes a crucial part of the way that news and other information spreads in a social-media age. The network is already in a delicate situation when it comes to issues like free speech, with the State Department pressuring it to shut down accounts that belong (or appear to belong) to terrorist organizations, and other lobby groups launching legal claims against the company because it allegedly supports entities like Hezbollah by giving them a platform.

The company’s refusal to provide more details about how the verification process functions may stem in part from its desire to protect the users it is verifying, or to prevent the system from being gamed somehow. But if it is going to continue to ask for the trust of its users, it is going to have to be more transparent about how it manages the network, or risk losing the faith that it has spent so much time building up.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Hans Gerwitz and See-ming Lee

17 Responses to “Why Twitter’s “verified account” failure matters”

  1. I know that the whole identification verification issue is definitely a widespread and complex issue but I 100% agree that being more transparent about their verification process would be a very good business decision for Twitter. As the article pointed out it would almost be better to not have a verification process at all if they didn’t want to get involved than to have one that apparently doesn’t work accurately and that no one knows anything about. Great article! :)

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  3. Michael Bolcerek

    There are simple methods of verification that could work, but twitter has chosen to not want to employ a real-world verification tool such as Aristotle’s ID verification service that would require some form of identification number such as a final 4 of SSN, Passport or DL. Using FB as a verification tool has many flaws, and no one is actually verified there, otherwise my dog would not have 75 friends, and by 25 years of age. This verified concept is great, and everyone, and I mean everyone, not just celebs, could choose to be verified, but Twitter just does not want to do it. Go figure.

  4. Kai Turner

    I think the simple answer is that if they announce a process for account verification they will be swamped with applications from everyone and anyone who thinks that they qualify.

  5. voks_fan_4ever

    I don’t understand why the blue verification check can’t continue – once you enter account info you have to go back to your email address (same as you entered for your account)click onto the twitter link sent to you. You then receive message your account is verified but no blue check. The blue check could be auto done in software once user has clicked onto link. I still get asked if I’m verified & if I am, where is the blue check (like I am lying!). I’m not going to tie my fb to twitter due to having my info/pics/etc designated friends only access at this time. Those tying their twitter to their “adult website” such as “just hookup” –seriously??

  6. Mariano Amartino

    Twitter shouldbe more transparent in a lot of stuff, how they give away accounts not used in a long time? Why some yes? Why some no? If the “verification” fails why the impersonating process is such a pain the arse? Who choose who to be featured on the SUL? And yes, the SUL still is quite “permeable” to FoaF? Why is the international market feels like orphans? And so on :)

    Yes, they keep growing but with 800million in funds saying “growing problems” is not an excuse :)

  7. I disagree that Twitter has to be “transparent” about their Verification process. No they don’t.
    Platforms don’t have to be 100% glass house.
    They’ve done plenty to illustrate that they’re as trustworthy and user-centric as any platform has ever been
    (more than any other, in my opinion).

    This is the only screw up of a @Verified account I can remember in Twitter’s 5+ year existence.

    • I agree Twitter has done many things to show it is trustworthy, including the way it handled the WikiLeaks court order — and I am not saying this one incident calls any of that into question. But I think the company could quite easily put any concerns about verified accounts to rest by saying more about the process. Obviously they don’t have to — it’s just my opinion. Thanks for the comment.

      • Peter Hollo

        I’ve been informed that “deleted” tweets are never really deleted, if you link direct to the status. So that tweet has disappeared from @rupertmurdoch’s timeline, but can still be directly accessed.

        So I guess the reports are kind-of right, although the whole screenshots thing is a bit superfluous.