Twitter has had no idea what the flying fuck its “Verified Account” badge is supposed to mean for years, even as it was handing out verifications to rambling conspiracy theorists, white supremacists, and anyone willing to pay for it, according to internal emails obtained by BuzzFeed News.
When the feature was introduced in 2009, Twitter said it was simply a way for noteworthy users to avoid impersonation. Yet anyone who’s spent five minutes on the site knows that since day one, getting a blue checkmark was some kind of implicit endorsement of a user’s importance in the Twitter community (and to some grouchy users, a sign that someone is a liberal elitist). The emails dug up by BuzzFeed show a few things, including that the guidelines for bestowing the badges were total nonsense that made sense only from the perspective of driving engagement on the site.
According to the emails, after Twitter punished notorious racist troll Milo Yiannopoulos for extensive abuse on the platform by removing his verified badge in January 2016, Yiannopoulos proposed a ceasefire in exchange for getting it back. The ensuing discussion shows Twitter staff were fully aware that the badges were conferring elite status on users like Yiannopoulos, but not really sure on what to do about it.
Twitter’s general counsel Vijaya Gadde wrote:
I thought that he wasn’t qualified for verification under current guidelines—is that not true? I want to make sure we are doing the right thing here and not responding to external pressure or attacks from him. We’ve already taken the PR hit, so let’s make sure we are focused on getting this right!
User Services V.P. Tina Bhatnagar responded:
If he is as bad as we think on abuse, why don’t we just perma-suspend?
Twitter’s former Head of News, Government, and Elections Adam Sharp shot back:
To my understanding, none of the violations taken individually warrant permanent suspension and while we have escalations for repeat offenses of some types, we don’t have a blanket ‘three strikes you’re out’-type policy.
Gadde concluded he didn’t understand what the hell was going on:
I’d like to understand the verification policy and whether or not he is eligible or what would make him eligible. That should be an objective criteria in my view.
In a separate thread with CEO Jack Dorsey, Sharp wrote:
One challenge is how verification has morphed into something so much more than a well-intentioned identity check. It has become a cultural status symbol. It influences search ranking. It exempts a user from some spam filters. It gives them priority support treatment.
Elsewhere, Sharp noted that the level of engagement driven by verified accounts was included in reports given to shareholders. Thus not only did the checkmark-holders get a disproportionate amount of influence and power in the broader Twitter community, their actions on the platform were helping shape how the site reached conclusions about its policies.
Per BuzzFeed, other emails showed that Twitter staff were conflicted over what to do about Yiannopoulos because the site wasn’t issuing permanent bans except in cases where users issued violent threats—but that even that policy was unclear because they’d made exceptions to ban particularly awful users like Chuck C. Johnson before. (Twitter finally got tired enough of Yiannopoulos to ban him in late 2016.)
If this is all pretty confusing and ad hoc, imagine how staff felt! But Twitter apparently let the problem drag on for countless months, and they were only compelled to make reaching some clarity on it a priority after it blew up in their faces.
In November, Twitter made the extremely dubious decision to verify Jason Kessler, the organizer of a terrifying neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville, Virginia amid which three people died. The backlash forced it to put an immediate halt to all further verifications; later, it stripped badges from a number of white supremacist accounts.
The site’s support account publicly acknowledged “We should have addressed this earlier but did not prioritize the work as we should have.” One of Twitter’s V.P.s, Sinead McSweeney, recently admitted to British lawmakers that the verification system is “broken from top to bottom.”
Long story short: The system is still a mess, Twitter is still reeling from the culture that resulted from verifying large numbers of jerks and trolls, and even as the site is working to update its policies to make it a more pleasant place to be, the massive credibility problem that resulted is still around. These kind of problems are perhaps inevitable when a libertarian ideal of free speech collides with all the assholes on the internet, but knowing that doesn’t undo all the headaches it’s caused over the years.