Twitter is getting serious about getting verification right

After years of somewhat haphazard thinking about identity, Twitter has a plan for the blue checks.

Twitter’s new verification process.

Twitter's new verification process.

Photo: Twitter

Twitter is reopening its public verification process, years after it stopped accepting new applications. Just as important, the company is also trying to be more transparent and thoughtful about who gets verified and why.

The new verification system is rolling out starting Thursday. The process is simple enough: Users can go to their account settings to find the application, in which they will have to explain who they are and why they qualify, provide some sort of official identification and wait between a few days and a few weeks to see if they've been accepted. Most users won't be.

Twitter considered allowing anyone with a government-issued ID to apply for verification, Twitter's B Byrne said on a call with reporters. But that comes with its own tension. "Every form of verification has to balance the trade-off between accidentally keeping authentic accounts out," Byrne said, "and on the other side, being able to keep inauthentic accounts out." Too many accounts being verified "wouldn't really be a meaningful signal of anything," he said, but not verifying anyone doesn't solve anything, either. So Twitter landed on "notable accounts with high public interest," the sorts of people most users look for and follow who tend to be the sources of important information.

That has always been the kind of account that Twitter verified, but the company has never really said so before. The initial idea behind Twitter's blue-check verification system was simple enough: The platform needed a way to communicate that yes, this is the real Barack Obama/Oprah/Pope, not an imposter posting memes or jokes. But over time, the blue check came to be seen as a symbol of legitimacy, even of Twitter's tacit support of an account. Twitter was always quick to say that wasn't the case, but users saw it as a way for Twitter to play favorites.

The whole thing came crashing down in 2017, after Twitter verified the account of Jason Kessler, one of the organizers of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. After huge backlash to Twitter's apparent blessing of Kessler's account and actions, Twitter paused its verification program entirely. "We recognize that we have created this confusion and need to resolve it. We have paused all general verifications while we work and will report back soon," Twitter's support account said. That was November 9, 2017.

Some accounts have been verified since then, but there has been no public or transparent process by which someone can get a blue check. The system is so bad it's a running joke within Twitter: CEO Jack Dorsey and head of consumer product Kayvon Beykpour often tell their followers to just DM the other to get verified. (It doesn't work.)

But last fall, three years after pausing its official program, Twitter announced plans to bring it back. Six kinds of "Notable Accounts" would be eligible for a blue check, from politicians to activists to athletes to brands. All had to meet a certain threshold of fame to even qualify for verification. There were also new rules for how an account might be denied verification for breaking Twitter's rules, or have it removed in the future.

What a blue check means, and signifies, is still a slightly complicated question. About 360,000 people are currently verified on Twitter, Byrne said, which is already a small fraction of Twitter users. By narrowing the group of people who can theoretically be verified even further, Twitter risks turning verification into an even more powerful stamp of approval. It can deny or revoke verification on accounts that break its rules, which Twitter's Sarah Husain said will be handled "on a case-by-case basis." Millions of accounts spend their days doing problematic things without technically breaking the rules, and no matter how broadly Twitter eventually defines "notable," it will leave out some people for whom verification is a crucial tool to help avoid being impersonated or harassed.

Identity is a big question for Twitter in general going forward. So many of the company's recent product moves have been in service of making Twitter a better public presence for users, and if it becomes something like the internet's messaging service, making it easy for people to identify themselves and find each other becomes incredibly important. Twitter is working on ways to better signify automated and memorialized accounts, and has already built ways to better identify political figures. (You may have seen the "Senate Candidate" flags on various Twitter accounts last election cycle, for instance.) It's also adding a specific field for people to share their pronouns.

"Your profile is the first place that people go to see what you're about," said Andrea Conway, a designer at Twitter. But there's more to a person than fits in a location tag and a one-sentence bio. Twitter is trying to figure out how to let people express themselves to the fullest extent, inside a service known for its simplicity and brevity. People don't fit into 280 characters, and so increasingly, neither does Twitter.

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