Blue in the face: Twitter’s vexing verification raises identity issue on social mediaNovember 17, 2022
In the Twittersphere, the term “verified” has progressively taken on a meaning of its own. It was back in 2009 when the social media platform first introduced the coveted blue check mark, in an effort to combat impersonator accounts by adding credibility to genuine profiles.
The practice, soon followed by the other social media giants (Meta, Linkedin, YouTube, TikTok), quickly took on a new, if not slightly unintended, purpose — providing a status symbol. Social media quickly became a class struggle of the haves (blue checks) and have nots (everyone else).
The topic was reignited in the wake of Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover of 2022. Following the announcement that verified users would have to pay $8 monthly to keep their check, debates quickly emerged about its real value and significance (i.e., status symbol vs. security feature), as well as the consequences of anyone being able to pay for a once vetted account feature.
The latter part is where the topic of identity verification becomes front and center, even if it hasn’t achieved the same headlines as Musk’s other waves of constant changes. Under the new verification system (as part of the Twitter Blue subscription service), verified users no longer need to submit to actual identity verification — at least not initially.
A Twitter History Identity Check
Since its debut, the blue check was bestowed through internal vetting and review. To confirm prominent users were who their profiles said they were, Twitter deployed a manual identity verification process, which eventually expanded to include public submissions in 2016.
Just one year later, however, Twitter announced it was pausing submissions amid controversy that the site was verifying (and thereby endorsing) some bad apples, and to further assess the platform’s authentication and verification methods.
It wasn’t until 2021 when Twitter brought back its verification submission program, revamped with feedback from the public. It was a stop and start process — Twitter paused the program again that summer after some fake submissions slipped through the cracks — but the company started to implement automated checks (in addition to human review) to ramp up an influx of verification requests.
It was also in 2021 when the company unveiled the original Twitter Blue, a $4 monthly subscription that granted users exclusive features and perks ― verification not included.
Identity Verification on Other Social Sites
Of course, Twitter isn’t the only social network faced with an identity verification crisis. While it’s common for most companies with a digital presence to deploy a KYC (Know Your Customer) process and verify their users, social media is a unique industry. That’s due in large part to the promise of anonymity on platforms like Twitter and Reddit, which differ from other social media sites (namely Facebook and Linkedin) that require users to include their real names.
Facebook, for example, may require a user to submit an identity document to either confirm their name or allow them to access a locked account. Linkedin could not exist without identity verification, as the whole purpose of the platform is to establish real-life business connections for hiring and other relationships.
Meanwhile, a number of prominent social media networks have started to embrace biometrics and other technology for multiple use cases, including age verification. Instagram utilizes AI to verify if minors on the platform are lying about their age ― by scanning old birthday messages. The dating app Hinge recently announced it is launching identity verification through video selfies, in an effort to thwart fraud attempts involving financial schemes.
While the social media landscape is taking steps to evolve its identity verification practices as fraud continues to proliferate, there are still no set rules or regulations, with many verification services being made optional to users. This has caused the governments of some countries (including France, Australia, and India) to propose laws that require social media companies to perform identity verification checks on all members.
Anonymity vs. Accountability: What the Future Holds
Of course, the big reason widespread identity verification does not exist across social media is anonymity. For many individuals and groups, an anonymous platform like Twitter has allowed them to tweet about abuse, political activism, struggles with their sexual identity, and other details they wouldn’t feel safe sharing if their true identities were made public.
On the other side of the argument, anonymity has been a perfect cover for fraudsters and other malicious actors looking to take advantage of lax (to non-existent) identity verification protocols. Over 95,000 Americans reported roughly $770 million in fraud losses initiated on social media in 2021, with the majority of scams involving e-commerce, investments, and romantic relationships. In fact, more than 1 out of every 4 fraud victims in total during 2021 claimed they were deceived by a social media ad, post, or message, according to the FTC.
Considering 4.6 billion people use social media (nearly 60% of the world population), identity fraud is a problem that could scale to epic proportions — while being equally epic to combat due to the sheer mass of unverified users.
As for Twitter, Musk’s plan to address scammers and bots through paid verification went through a predictably bumpy start, as Twitter Blue was overrun with impersonator accounts, causing the company to pause the new system after just two days. While Musk believed a paid subscription would deter bots and bad actors, and that identity verification would still be conducted through app stores and payment processors, it’s clear that a “Wild West” environment will persist if subscription profits are prioritized over security protocols.
Musk admitted that “Twitter will do lots of dumb things” in the wake of his takeover, but identity verification has become an unavoidable hurdle for the social media giant, considering how low public perception can go with more fraudulent accounts. The “How to get verified on Twitter” page changed on an almost daily basis the week paid verifications were launched, proving just how volatile the situation is.
Before quitting the company himself, former Twitter Head of Trust & Safety Yoel Roth addressed the topic of identity verification more head on.
“Long-term, I think we need to invest more in identity verification as a complement to proof-of-humanness,” tweeted Roth on Nov. 7th, four days before resigning. “Paid verification is a strong (not perfect) signal of humanness, which helps fight bots and spam. But that’s not the same thing as identity verification.”
Indeed, it is proving rather painful on social media that you can’t have “verified” accounts without identity verification.