As part of its pledge to “take a more aggressive stance” toward hate and harassment on its platform, Twitter is … verifying neo-Nazis?
Jason Kessler organized the Unite the Right rally-turned-riot in Charlottesville this summer that ended in the death of Heather Heyer. He later called her “a fat, disgusting Communist.” Because “Communists have killed 94 million,” Kessler continued, “Looks like it was payback time.” He then blamed prescription drugs and alcohol and deleted his account. Now, he’s back — and earlier this week Twitter awarded him the coveted blue badge with a white check mark that denotes the profile of a “verified” user.
This did not go over well. Neither did Twitter’s attempt to set things right in techno-speak.
“Verification was meant to authenticate identity & voice but it is interpreted as an endorsement or an indicator of importance,” Twitter announced on its official account. “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.”
Wait a second. Twitter’s announcement put the burden and the blame on its readers for the way they “interpret” how it dispenses its blue badges; the platform claimed it only cares whether the people behind a page are who they say they are. But even according to company policy, this is false: Twitter’s not very helpful “How can we help?” page says that “the blue verified badge … lets people know that an account of public interest is authentic.” And who decides how publicly interesting is publicly interesting enough? Twitter, of course.
On a practical level, the characterization is more misleading still. Twitter, as users are pointing out, has declined to bestow blue badges on the accounts of countless reporters, writers and other online personalities — particularly in communities of color — because it doesn’t seem to think they’re important enough. And as Gizmodo’s Matt Novak points out, it has also “de-badged” users such as Milo Yiannopoulos because it doesn’t want to endorse them.
Fringe conservatives turned the term “verified” or “blue check” into a pejorative label to slap on a member of the so-called elite or establishment: They think Twitter loves liberals, and the check marks prove it. Liberals think that, on the contrary, Twitter doesn’t do enough to counter the racism and sexism than run rampant on its platform.
Twitter’s choice to verify Kessler supports the liberals’ complaint. There has long been a connection between tech culture and menacing nationalist forces. The alt-right lurked in the Internet underground for years before GamerGate and then Breitbart and Trumpism brought them to the surface of everyday life. Twitter has never aligned itself with those ideologies. But it has shown a lack of interest in stopping them.
The Kessler kerfuffle cuts to the core question about social media sites and search engines such as Google, Facebook and Twitter: Are they just platforms, or are they publishers? Twitter’s decision to suspend all verifications is a cop-out. Verifying no one is the same as verifying everyone: It allows Twitter to appear completely content-neutral.
But Twitter is not content-neutral, and as long as the site is shutting some people down and propping others up, anyone with a brain will recognize that. One answer is to step back and let the world run wild. A better one is to take tighter hold of the reins — and admit that’s what they’re doing.