Jason Kessler, one of the main organizers of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in August that left one woman dead, announced earlier this week that Twitter had verified his account, sparking an angry response and debate about Twitter’s responsiblity for monitoring and classifying its users. Twitter denotes verified accounts by placing a blue checkmark next to a name, indicating the user is a person of public interest and that the account is authentic.
“Looks like I FINALLY got verified by Twitter,” Kessler tweeted on Tuesday. “I must be the only working class white advocate with that distinction.”
The post drew furious replies and sparked blowback on the social media site, with users blasting the company for verifying the account, which many saw as an endorsement or a signal to users that Kessler was a noteworthy figure. There were numerous calls for Twitter to rethink the decision.
“Hi @Twitter,” tweeted Simran Jeet Singh, a professor of religion at Trinity University. “Hope you realize there’s no such thing as being neutral when it comes to Nazis. Verifying Jason Kessler is a political act — and one that puts you on the wrong side of history.”
Through an official account, Twitter said Thursday its normal verification process was being paused as procedures are reviewed. But it also clarified that verification is not meant to be an endorsement.
“Verification was meant to authenticate identity & voice but it is interpreted as an endorsement or an indicator of importance,” the company acknowledged in a tweet. “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.”
The verification of Kessler’s account angered many users because of previous posts and actions.
Less than a week after the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Kessler posted a comment on Twitter about the woman who was killed when a Nazi sympathizer allegedly drove his car into a crowd of protesters.
“Heather Heyer was a fat disgusting Communist,” Kessler tweeted. “Communists have killed 94 million. Looks like it was payback time.”
And last month, Kessler was arrested after he allegedly shared online the home address of an anti-racism activist. He denied responsibility on Twitter.
“I’ve been to the cops and courts probably a dozen times complaining about people posting my address & they don’t care,” he wrote. “But someone alleges that an account I don’t run listed their PUBLICLY AVAILABLE address & I’m charged with a Class 1 misdemeanor.”
Kessler, whose account was still verified as of Thursday afternoon, did not respond to requests for comment.
Twitter has removed verified checkmarks from users or suspended users in the past for violations of its standards. Last month, it suspended the account of political consultant Roger Stone, a vocal supporter of President Trump, for a series of expletive-filled tweets aimed at political figures and journalists. Actress Rose McGowan, who spoke out against Harvey Weinstein’s alleged acts of sexual harassment, had her account suspended for 12 hours because she reportedly tweeted a private telephone number, which is against the company’s policies.
And Twitter had previously removed a verified checkmark from the account of conservative writer Milo Yiannopoulos in 2016, before banning him from the site a few months later.
Top Twitter officials weighed in on the Kessler decision Thursday from their personal accounts. Chief executive Jack Dorsey said Twitter should have communicated its doubts about the verification system to users faster, and the network had realized it needed to overhaul its verification process “some time ago.”
Ed Ho, general manager of Twitter’s consumer product and engineering group, also said Twitter should have acted more quickly, and added that the company knew the system was “busted” since the start of 2017.
“We should have stopped the current process at the beginning of the year,” Ho said.
Twitter declined to comment on what, exactly, “general verifications” means — and whether it opens the door for specific accounts to be verified — or why it took so long to act on changing the verification system. The company did not offer a timeline on when these changes may go into effect.