13.01.2016 Twitter’s ‘blue tick’: the power and responsibility of being verified

For many social media obsessives, Twitter’s blue tick verification system has long been a source of mystery and intrigue; who is eligible? What are the criteria? Why does unpopular politician X have a tick while A-list celebrity Y doesn’t?

Being granted a blue tick by the Twitter powers-that-be has been described as the equivalent of a “digital knighthood”, imbuing its holder with a sense of pride, belonging and perhaps even superiority.

After all, there are approximately just 150,000 verified accounts out of a total 300 million active users, putting holders in a very exclusive club.

Some try repeatedly and sometimes desperately to attain the hallowed status, but Twitter is in no rush to comply, simply urging users to “be patient.”

Officially, according to Twitter’s FAQ on the subject, verification is used to “establish authenticity of identities of key individuals and brands”.

The social network says it concentrates on “highly sought users” in music, acting, fashion, government, politics, religion, journalism, media, sports, business and what it calls “other key interest areas”.

As well as the prestige of being able to display a visible blue tick badge, verified account holders also have access to a range of extra features and account analytics, making it particularly useful to brands.

Violations

The blue tick made headlines again earlier this week when it was revealed a journalist was stripped of his because he supposedly broke Twitter rules.

In an email, Twitter told Milo Yiannopoulos, a writer for the right-wing news site Breitbart, that his verification had been removed for “violations”, though it did not specify what they were.

Yiannopoulos has been described by others as a “provocateur” and by himself as a “supervillain”, and he has been criticised for his confrontational approach and for allegedly “harassing” Twitter users who disagree with him.

Inevitably, reaction on Twitter has been split between those who are grateful for the delegitimisation and those who are angry that free speech is being curtailed.

Yiannopoulos claims the move has actually served him well; instead of being marginalised he says he gained 5,000 new followers in a day and has been turned into a “free speech martyr.”

Free speech

Twitter’s removal of Yiannopoulos’ blue tick could be seen as a rather cunning move by the social network. As it has not yet suspended him permanently (though it has threatened to if there are further “violations”), it can largely brush off accusations of limiting free speech and claim with some justification that it is not validating offensive content and opinions by verifying those who post them.

Also, because Yiannopoulos has a large number of impersonators, it has made it more difficult for his voice to be heard and for people to know which is the real Yiannopoulos, thus diluting the impact of his message.

It could be argued that social media networks like Twitter and Facebook have a responsibility to uphold the values of free speech, however offensive or unpleasant some may find the views being put forward, simply because of the huge size of their membership and the amount of public discourse that takes place on their platforms.

But that is overlooking another, important point. Ultimately Twitter and Facebook are private entities and are, like any other membership body, free to set their own rules about how their service works and how they expect it to be used. It is up to them who they allow into their ‘club’, what perks they give them and what they expect of them in return.