Elon Musk owns Twitter, and, well, so far, it’s not been a great transition. Casey Newton and Ryan Broderick have covered the ins and outs, so I don’t need to rehash anything. Instead, I want to focus on verifying everyone on a social media platform.
On the surface, it seems like a good idea. On the surface, verification increases accountability, eliminates spammers, and reduces bot activity. However, like many things that look good on paper, verification has significant drawbacks, too. Let’s explore all three of these points and how they may work out for better or worse.
The idea goes that if everyone is forced to use their name online, they might not always respond with the things they’re thinking. Some of the vilest parts of the internet are entirely built on anonymity, with no consequences for the things people post. Take away anonymity, and people are more polite — at least, that’s the idea.
In reality, many people post awful things online under their name — just look at Facebook. Sure, there may be some people who reduce what they say as a result of posting under a verified account, but I’m not sure it will make much of a difference.
Elon Musk is a self-proclaimed Free Speech Absolutest — according to him, all speech is free, and society can deem what is and isn’t appropriate. Under this model, there isn’t accountability for posting vile stuff unless there are societal repercussions. There have been occasions where people have lost their jobs or been arrested for what they posted online (see pretty much everyone who tried to overthrow the government on January 6, 2021), but repercussions are often few and far between.
On the other side, there are many people for whom accountability can work in their disservice. There are many activities for social change, whistleblowers, and journalistic sources who operate under the protection of anonymity. Verification and accountability for their words will interfere with their work. As a result, many stories and drivers of societal change will be stifled.
The irony is that accountability through verification will lead to less free speech, the exact opposite of what Elon Musk proposes to believe in.
Spammers are rampant on Twitter. No matter which circle you’re in, you’ve likely come across someone pushing crypto scams or otherwise trying to milk people of real money using the platform.
While my audience on Twitter isn’t very large, I have over 50k followers on Medium. Earlier this year, someone set up an account in my likeness to send private messages to users asking to “connect via WhatsUp.” I can only guess anyone who fell for this was sent some scam using my face and name. Thankfully, Medium shut it down and, thankfully, I haven’t seen any reports of anyone falling for the scam.
While this example happened on Medium, the same thing happens on every social platform all the time. Anyone with a large enough following becomes an easy target to try and scam fans.
A verification system should put an end to these scams. In fact, after my experience with the scammer on Medium, I’ve advocated for verification on that platform. Those in the Medium Partner Program already provide tax ID paperwork containing government identification, so verification should be relatively straightforward.
However, while Elon Musk said Twitter Blue users will be verified for $8/month, there have been no deals about how verification will work. Will there be an actual verification process by which you must upload a government-issued identification as the program currently works? Or will you pay $8 and instantly become “verified?” If the latter is the case, $8/month is likely a small price to pay for a scammer wishing to co-opt someone’s likeness.
Under that scenario, if I choose not to verify my account by subscribing to Twitter Blue and someone else creates a fake account using my information and does verify, then users are left holding the bag trying to discern who the real Justin Cox is. Under this model, verification does nothing to reduce scammers.
While government-issued verification is the best way to eliminate spammers, it’s also the worst way to protect marginalized voices and people who require anonymity to live. In other words, there is no easy solution here.
What we’re likely to see rolled out (since it is being built in a week and half the workforce was fired) is the pay-to-play verification system. You pay, you get a checkmark. Spammers will not be reduced under that system and will likely be much harder to identify.
There’s no arguing that Twitter has a bot problem. I have a bot account that shares a link to every story published by The Writing Cooperative. These types of bot accounts are common and relatively harmless. However, thousands of other bot accounts amplify hate speech, push crypto scams, and perpetuate misinformation.
Musk is pushing the idea that verification costing money will reduce bots — will I pay to verify myself and my bot account? Probably not. Under this scenario, newsfeed-style bots like mine and those being run by individuals will likely slow down.
However, what’s to prevent a hostile nation or person wishing to perpetuate misinformation from verifying a handful of bot accounts? Again, we don’t know how verification will work yet, so it’s difficult to say. But if it is simply pay-to-play verification, bots will likely still be a significant issue on the platform.
Twitter verification is coming to the masses, but I’m not sure it will solve any of the problems the platform currently faces. Plus, in many cases, verification may make the platform worse.
Right now, I’m torn about verifying my account.
On the one hand, I want to make sure people don’t potentially use my likeness to perpetuate scams, as was the case on Medium. I also don’t want to be devalued in the algorithm, as Musk has said will happen to non-paying users (another significant problem that will silence voices unable to afford the participation cost). But, at the same time, I don’t feel like I need to pay for social clout. So, I don’t know.
I love Twitter. It’s by far my favorite platform to connect with people around the world. I’ve been using Twitter daily since 2008, and I owned stock in the company. I want to root for the platform and see it succeed, but I don’t think the $8/month verification process is the way to improve things.
What do you think? Will verification save Twitter? Are you going to verify your account? Hit reply, and let’s have a conversation.
Programming Note: This Just In is now on Substack!
I moved my newsletter service from Revue (owned by Twitter) to Substack a week or so ago — I also moved my weekly This Week In Writing to Substack as well. I had a bad feeling that Revue would die under Twitter’s new ownership, and based on reporting this week, it will be later this year.
The irony is that This Just In was originally birthed on Substack a few years ago, and I moved it to Revue when Twitter purchased the platform. As I said, I love Twitter and had high hopes for Revue — they never materialized. So, I’m happy to be back on Substack (hey, that rhymed!).
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