Why Who Gets Twitter's Little Blue Check Matters

(Photo illustration by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
(Photo illustration by Leon Neal/Getty Images)

I was sure this was my moment. After years of false promises, Twitter was finally reopening its verification process. In its May 20 announcement, the social media platform touted new rules for verification that it claimed are designed to add “transparency, credibility, and clarity to verification on Twitter.” Four years and tens of thousands more followers since Twitter initially denied me a coveted blue check, I thought I might finally get one.

Twitter verification, for those who aren’t very online, is a nebulous social media asset; a tiny blue-dotted check-mark that appears next to your name on the viral platform. Technically, verification accords users access to a few extra Twitter features. In reality, it serves as a badge of relevance and clout with the implication of vetting. The function of verification is to create a two-tiered conversation on Twitter, between those who count — and everyone else.

But I was rejected. Again.

Despite years of apparent brainstorming and reflection, Twitter’s new verification rules fix none of its old problems. The new rules perpetuate an ad hoc decision-making process that is vulnerable to all of Silicon Valley’s clichéd blind spots. We are in a national moment of contemplation over who deserves a platform and which information sources should be trusted. Wittingly or otherwise, Twitter is putting its finger on the scale as its over 330 million monthly active users process news and pop culture in real-time on the site.

Because Twitter is an increasingly central platform for the dissemination of political and social information, its flawed policies have consequences at scale.

Because Twitter is an increasingly central platform for the dissemination of political and social information, its flawed policies have consequences at scale. As a daily tweeter who cares about sharing accurate content, it seems obvious to me that – regardless of real-world credibility or relevance – tweets from verified users attract more engagement (and mainstream media coverage). Conversely, like many users, I hesitate to retweet information shared by unverified accounts because I don’t have time to vet all the content that comes across my feed.

Twitter paused its public verification process in 2017, amid backlash over its decision to verify one of the white supremacists who organized the Charlottesville mob where Heather Heyer was murdered. In response, the company tweeted, “Verification was meant to authenticate identity … but it is interpreted as an endorsement or an indicator of importance … We recognize that we have created this confusion and need to resolve it."

The verification process at the time was intentionally hard to evaluate. Users could submit for verification on Twitter’s website, though neither the criteria for verification nor the purpose of verification was coherently defined. “It’s like the illuminati of social media,” joked one verified user at the time. Twitter benefitted from this approach twofold: the vagueness created cachet over its blue check, while the company ducked any accountability for fairness or compliance (because there was no policy available to comply with).

[Twitter] chose to leave a verification system its own CEO described as 'broken' in place for years.

It was under this scheme, as social media continued to replace traditional media, that a host of unvetted but Twitter-verified internet personalities were able to claim massive influence on the platform. One illustrative example is Yashar Ali, a quasi-journalist with nearly 800,000 followers whose credibility was called into question in a recent LA Magazine profile. Few knew of Ali, a former political staffer, who rose to prominence almost singularly through Twitter. Ali and I, at times, had the rare online exchange. I hadn’t heard of him offline, but the blue check on his profile seemed to assuage any concerns that he wasn’t legitimate. Ali has gone silent on the platform since the article’s publication earlier this month.

Despite its 2017 pledge to “report back soon" after pausing public verification, the company chose to leave a verification system its own CEO described as “broken” in place for years. Rather than take action as the most dishonest administration in U.S. history exploited the platform to spread disinformation (including on official and verified accounts) — the company allowed its poorly designed digital caste system to stay frozen in place, paused.

To solve the many ills of its verification program, an entire presidential administration later, Twitter’s sole solution is to release more details about its verification requirements. The new guidelines offer industry-specific requirements for six categories of verification (government, activist, journalist, etc.). Successful applications should include references to recent press, official mentions on organizational websites, and more. However, beyond such clear-cut requisites, Twitter redoubles the exact vagueness its new policy claims to remedy. “Companies, brands, and organizations” seeking the badge, for example, must have “follower count in the top .05% of active accounts located in the same geographic region.” This is not information readily accessible to users and once again leaves verification entirely up to Twitter’s internal decision-makers with no external accountability that the company is fairly applying its own policy.

The arbitrary nature of the process is frustrating.

To be clear, I’m not sure I should be verified on the platform. I’m a Democratic political commentator and activist. I have over 90,000 followers and generate between millions and tens of millions of impressions on the platform each month. I was on the Digital Team at Hillary for America and am Senior Advisor to a 30-year-old D.C. non-profit. I have an M.B.A. from the Yale School of Management and a B.A. in political science from Brown University. I’ve also published op-eds like this one across various outlets. My tweets are constantly cited in mainstream news articles. Just recently the White House Chief of Staff account retweeted me.

I believe I meet Twitter’s new publicly stated verification criteria, though the guidance seems intentionally tricky to parse. Remaining unverified directly hurts my professional ambitions. The arbitrary nature of the process is frustrating.

While Twitter has announced its barely updated approach to verification, its policy is not retroactive. Twitter has already verified over 300,000 users and there are no plans to un-verify users who do not meet the 2021 standards. This means that any new level of credibility or merit that could theoretically result from the updated verification policy will fall victim to a classic asymmetric information problem — nobody can tell the good from the bad. Oddly, under the new rules, many categories of applicants must submit bylines and/or press coverage from only the last six months. Surely, thousands of those verified before the updated policy cannot meet that threshold.

If adding convoluted stipulations to its new verification requirements seems like more of the same, Twitter also notes it “may verify accounts that do not fully meet the [new verification] criteria.” Back to square one.

Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook and Twitter.


Headshot of Kaivan Shroff

Kaivan Shroff Cognoscenti contributor
Kaivan Shroff serves as senior advisor to the Institute for Education, a D.C. non-profit.



More from WBUR

Listen Live