How verification promotes social media class system

Twitter verification has morphed into a status symbol. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Twitter verification has morphed into a status symbol. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

Two weeks ago, I called Maxwell Nyota, an old college friend, to scold him.

“Why are you not verified on Twitter?” I asked the moment he picked up the phone.

In the years that I have known him, Maxwell has evolved from that college student who was always experimenting in our campus studio into a producer with a local radio station. He has over 20,000 followers on Twitter.

It seemed a gross oversight for Maxwell (@maxradio99) not to protect his online brand through verification. I was not shy about telling him so, never mind the hypocrisy since I do not have a verification tick myself (my excuse is that I only have a handful followers).

Maxwell admitted that he’d meant to get verified, but had just never gotten around to figuring out what seemed a vague process.

“Really and truly, I have never tried the process, but I know there is a process and I need to try it,” he told me.

What Maxwell and I didn’t know was that there was a very limited window for verification on Twitter. A week after we spoke, Twitter “paused” its verification programme, saying that it needed to “fix” a broken system.

Twitter’s decision came in the wake of public outrage after the company granted a verification badge to a white supremacist who, of course, bragged about his newly found status.

On Tuesday, Maxwell said that the closure of that door felt like a “genuine opportunity had just passed” and “been ruined by other people”.

Twitter said that verification had morphed into a status symbol rather than what it was originally meant to be, a way to authenticate identity on a platform where it can be so easy to wear someone else’s face.

Although Twitter’s verification process was never easy to begin with—Laban Cliff Onserio, a business anchor and reporter with NTV had to try twice — it was perhaps the easiest among the social media platforms.

Ironically, therefore, the closure of verification on Twitter, though temporarily, may only serve to solidify the perception that verification is a status symbol, delineating the blue-badged elite from the rest.

Instagram, Google+ and Snapchat all reach out to people they feel deserve verification. Facebook’s verification favours the West and big brands.

Requesting verification on Facebook is only available in the United States and parts of Europe, and the process itself is opaque.

The company told Digital Business it plans to roll it out globally in the future although there are no set timelines. For now, the only Africans that can get verification on Facebook are those users that have a “managed” relationship with the company. In the case of corporates, employees may also benefit from verification through this process.

“Verification requirements are kept confidential to protect the integrity of the process,” Facebook said.

Twitter’s solution to its verification problem is far from clear. What remains is that it has just become harder for a social media user to link their online persona to their offline selves, to confirm to the world that “I am whom I say I am”.

“The issue now is that it’s going to be harder for those who deserve verification to get it, especially outside of Europe and the United States,” said James Wamathai (@wamathai) partnership director at the Bloggers Association of Kenya (Bake).

Wamathai received his verification last year, after Twitter opened up the process, allowing the public to apply for verification. Prior to this, verification was a process cloaked in mystery— Twitter reached out to you if it thought you deserved one of its badges.

Verification was first introduced on Twitter after an American baseball manager sued the company after he was impersonated on the platform.

“I verified my account to ward off pseudo accounts that may want to distribute fake news on the premise that it is from a reliable journalist in the newsroom,” said Laban Cliff Onserio (@LabanCliff), who’d been offering verification tutorials to our newsroom in the weeks before Twitter’s ‘pause’.

For individuals who make their money primarily on social media and the Internet, verification can make the difference between getting a new contract to, for instance, promote a new product and losing it to a rival.

For public influencers, a tick on Twitter can also increase the likelihood of an opinion or a piece of news being picked up and shared widely.

“People’s perception of my account changed once I got verification. I got new followers and it was easier for my tweets to trend. When you’re verified people trust you,” said Dann Mwangi (@DannMwangi), also an anchor and reporter with NTV.

The social media site also offers special tools and analytics to its verified users. For instance, Mr Mwangi could choose to only see mentions from other verified people, weeding out potential trolls.

Closely monitoring how verification is doled out may mean that other social media sites are unlikely to land in the same hot water as Twitter. However, this does not necessarily mean that the integrity of the process is protected, as Facebook says.

An investigation by digital media website Mashable found that there was a black market for Instagram verifications where users were colluding with employees and paying up to Sh1.6 million ($15,000) for one of the coveted ticks.

It wouldn’t be far-fetched to imagine a situation where similar schemes are run for other social media platforms in an environment where authenticating one’s identity online becomes more of an uphill battle than as it grows more crucial for professional progression.

The sum effect would be the calcification of social strata online, an environment that is meant to be more egalitarian than the offline world.

Ticks would remain the preserve of those that are already enough of a “somebody” to catch the attention of the social media platforms or those that can pay for a back route to verification.

Already there are indications that verification may skew along other lines of social stratification with research by Mashable last year showing that men were more likely than women to have that coveted ‘tick’ on Twitter.