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Twitter secretly verified Jack Dorsey's mom and thousands of others despite 'pause'

Jack Dorsey’s mother and father, the ’80s band Whitesnake, a “war room” associated with Donald Trump’s reelection campaign — these are a few of the more than 10,000 accounts Twitter has quietly verified in recent months, despite putting its verification program on hold.

The company has said little publicly about verification, which it suspended in 2017 following backlash over its verification of a white supremacist. But data viewed by Mashable suggests the company is verifying a flurry of accounts each month despite the supposed break. 

Celebrities, and others with backchannel connections to the company, are able to become verified as Twitter ignores everyday users and those without insider access. In many ways, this secretive process is now more opaque and unfair than it was when anyone could apply on Twitter’s website. At a time when Twitter says it’s trying to be more transparent about its rules, the lack of an official verification policy is hurting groups already susceptible to abuse, critics say.

On its official FAQ page, Twitter states “our verified account program is currently on hold. We are not accepting any new requests at this time.” Despite the lack of an official request form, the company has continued to verify new accounts for more than a year. Some, such as the survivors of the Parkland shooting, or Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, have been well publicized. But many more have flown under the radar, such as Tim and Marcia Dorsey, the parents of Twitter’s CEO, both of whom got a blue check at some point in the last four months.

In a statement, Twitter said it continues to “verify select accounts,” but didn’t offer specifics on how many accounts it’s verifying. The company didn’t dispute Mashable’s findings.

“We have paused public submissions for verification while we focus on a new authentication and verification program,” a spokesperson said. “However, our teams around the world continue to work closely with trusted partners to verify select accounts.”

While Twitter typically doesn’t discuss which accounts it verifies, there is one way to gain some visibility into just how many accounts are gaining the blue checkmark: Twitter’s official @verified account, which automatically follows every verified account. Using data from third-party Twitter analytics platforms, Mashable peeled back the curtain on Twitter’s behind-the-scenes verifying. 

Mashable used Twitter analytics service Follower Wonk to analyze all of the accounts @verified followed for 120 days ending on March 28th, and the results show Twitter’s verification is far from “paused.” The account followed a total of 13,767 users during that 120-day period, according to Follower Wonk’s data. 

FollowerWonk data on new accounts followed by Twitter's @verified account.

FollowerWonk data on new accounts followed by Twitter’s @verified account.

Data from SocialRank, another Twitter analytics service, shows similar numbers during roughly the same time period. According to the company, the @verified account followed about 10,259 new accounts between November 20, 2018 and April 9, 2019. (Unlike FollowerWonk, SocialRank only tracks net follows, meaning any accounts unfollowed in a given time period are subtracted from the total number of new follows.) 

A third service, SocialBlade, which only surfaces data for a 30-day period, shows @verified has followed 2,772 accounts between March 12, 2019 and April 9, 2019, and follows an average of 88 new accounts a day.  

While these numbers may not offer an exact look at how many accounts Twitter is verifying, they suggest Twitter’s pause is bogus.

Verification’s messy history

Twitter first began verifying accounts in 2009. In its early days, the coveted blue checkmark was reserved mostly for celebrities and other public figures, and not much was known about how it was awarded. 

In 2016, the company opened up an application process so that anyone could apply for verification. Soon after, the number of verified accounts appeared to spike, with 219 new verified accounts a day on average, according to The Next Web’s analysis at the time. 

Then, in November 2017, Twitter abruptly put its verification program on hold, just days after it verified Jason Kessler, the white supremacist who organized the Unite the Right protest in Charlottesville, where counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed.

Twitter executives at the time admitted that the existing verification process had been broken for quite awhile, and that the checkmark should be a verification of a user’s identity and not seen as an endorsement. 

Dorsey also said he intended the new verification process to be open to everyone. 

But it’s now been 17 months since Twitter paused verification, and more than a year since Dorsey made that statement. Not only is there no sign of this long-promised reboot, the company is quietly verifying thousands of users without providing any guidance on how it’s making these decisions.

Why verification matters

Verification may be seen as a status symbol, but there are a number of benefits to the blue checkmark besides social media influence.

Allison Esposito Medina, founder and CEO of Tech Ladies, an online community for women in the tech industry, says Twitter’s silence about verification hurts people who are already more susceptible to harassment. 

“It’s even more important to verify underrepresented people on Twitter, because we’re so often the people who get the brunt of the harassment on the site,” she said. “It makes being a woman or an underrepresented person on Twitter very hard because if you build up a following and you have a strong voice, but then you can’t prove that you are who you say you are, it puts you in an even more dangerous position for speaking out on anything “

Lack of verification can also make you vulnerable to impersonation, an issue Matt Gisbrecht, a rapper with more than 54,000 YouTube subscribers, says he has struggled with on Twitter. Like Medina, he says his requests for verification have been denied without explanation. 

“I’ve actually had people read tweets from fake accounts and think it was me saying what the fake account says,” he says. “This happened to a family member of mine recently and they actually got upset because of something a fake account said that they misjudged thinking it was me.” 

Gisbrecht, who uses the name PFV professionally, says Twitter makes it nearly impossible for creators to report impersonation if they don’t use their legal name on the platform. “They want a copy of your ID to prove you’re being impersonated, and you can’t do that if your government name and business name or alias is not the same.”

Even some high-profile users have apparently been unable to benefit from Twitter’s current shadowy verification rules. Peter Ramsey, who this year won an Academy Award as the director for Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, says he has been unable to become verified. 

Twitter, of course, has been dealing with a number of issues over the last year and a half. Namely, rampant harassment and other kinds of abuse that have driven some high-profile users away from the platform.

While Twitter has made significant steps in combatting the spread of spam and abuse, it would appear the verification revamp is less of a priority.

At the same time, Twitter has been trying to give off the impression that it’s more transparent than in years past. The company is currently beta testing new conversation features in public view, and the company’s head of trust and safety has said she would like to publish “case studies” explaining Twitter’s rationale for banning or suspending high-profile accounts. 

But when it comes to verification, at least, Twitter still has a long way to go.  

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