Trust in Twitter takes a knock


If Twitter says a Twitter account is authentic, you trust it, don’t you? That little tick on a blue background you often see alongside accounts of prominent politicians, celebs and others is your symbol of confidence that the account belongs to the person whose name appears on it, and not someone else.

After all, Twitter has verified that it is so. Indeed, Twitter says of its verification:

Verification is currently used to establish authenticity of identities on Twitter. The goal of this program is to limit user confusion by making it easier to identify authentic accounts on Twitter.

The bold emphasis is Twitter’s own.

The trouble is, no one is sure how Twitter verifies the identity of an account nor how verification as a whole actually work, something that assumes some importance when a verified Twitter account turns out to be a fake. Such an eventuality challenges your assumption of trust.

That’s what happened this week with Rupert Murdoch’s wife Wendi Deng Murdoch and the spoof Twitter account set up in her name during the Christmas holiday period by a still-unknown prankster.

Among the many reports and opinions about it, Mathew Ingram‘s assessment for GigaOm on why Twitter’s “verified account” failure matters is a credible one.

[…] Twitter has refused to speak publicly about what happened with the Deng account, or to explain why it was verified and then suddenly un-verified – and the company has also repeatedly refused to talk on the record about how the verification process as a whole works, and why some accounts are chosen for verification and others aren’t. Even if the Deng verification was a simple screw-up due to reduced staffing levels over the holidays, Twitter’s radio silence on the issue makes it even harder to trust the entire process, and that could have ramifications that go beyond just the Murdoch case.

Writing today in CorpComms Magazine, Clare Harrison asks how reliable is Twitter verification?

[…] Sadly, like so many implausibly good tales, [the Wendi Deng Twitter account] turned out to be false. And The Guardian wasn’t alone in falling for the ruse. The account appeared even to fool News Corp. A spokeswoman confirmed to reporters at both the BBC and The Guardian that the Deng account was real on Sunday, only to change her mind the following day.

People don’t like to be made fools of.

Alongside some good opinions from Stuart Bruce and Danny Whatmough, Clare’s analysis includes this quote from me:

[…] In an age of increasing transparency, it seems bizarre to see one of the key services that shores up the social web acting so opaquely about a matter that’s part of the fabric of the social web.

If you can understand more about how something works, you are in a better position to assign your trust to it. Or not.

Until that happens, caveat lector.

[Update Jan 5]  “The Case of the Unfortunate Underscore: How Twitter Verified the Fake Wendi Over the Real Wendi” – some light on how it happened, from Kara Swisher.

Neville Hobson

Social Strategist, Communicator, Writer, and Podcaster with a curiosity for tech and how people use it. Believer in an Internet for everyone. Early adopter (and leaver) and experimenter with social media. Occasional test pilot of shiny new objects. Avid tea drinker.