Could Twitter's verified accounts be the answer to stopping tweet threats?
We've talked about Twitter and the subject of policing the Internet quite a bit recently. It's not just us. Countless websites, newspapers, blogs and TV news channels have debated just what can be done to stop the problem of online abuse.
Part of the problem is that Twitter is -- as is the case with much of the Internet -- largely anonymous; or at least that's what most users think. They must think that, or they would not behave so stupidly and recklessly online. The reality is that, unless someone has taken measures to cover their tracks through proxy servers or other masking techniques, it's not really all that difficult to link an online message to, if not an individual person, at least an individual machine -- with the help of ISPs and other parties.
But maybe there is a simpler solution. The way things stand at the moment, it takes moments to sign up for a Twitter account, and there's nothing to stop you from signing up for thirty accounts if you feel the need or desire. Why might you want so many? Well, lots of people use Twitter professionally as well as personally. The person in charge of a company's official Twitter feed is likely to want their own personal account as well, and a lot of companies maintain multiple Twitter accounts for various purposes.
Multiple accounts can also be abused. A seemingly respectable person who uses Twitter to share thoughts and ideas may well have a darker side. There is nothing to stop them from opening up a second "trolling" account that is used for nothing more than stirring up trouble or harassing others.
Twitter already has a system in place that could be adapted to combat the problem: Verified accounts. These badges of authenticity are currently reserved for celebrities, politicians, journalists and other public figures. This does not mean that spoof, parody and out and out fake accounts do not exist, but the presence of the blue tick helps to reassure followers that a tweet from Stephen Fry really is from Stephen Fry. Tweets from me really are from me as well, by the way, although my account is devoid of the tick.
The way things stand at the moment, there is no way to reach out to Twitter and apply for a verified account -- unlike Google+ which allows anyone to request verification (you'll probably get turned down, but there's no harm in asking, eh?). Twitter is not especially open about who gets verified, what level of celebrity is required, and whether being an advertiser has any bearing on things, but one thing is clear: it will contact you, not the other way round.
The number of verified accounts is very small. You can keep an eye on the latest additions to the elite club by following @verified and there are some interesting and surprising accounts in the list. If you feel you or your company is deserving of verification, there's no point in trying to contact Twitter. Save your typing fingers the effort -- it's not worth the time. There are countless websites that claim to offer advice about how to get verified; ignore them. If you have to ask to be verified, you probably don't deserve or need to be.
Perhaps Twitter should consider looking at verified accounts in a completely different way. Rather than using it as a means of helping users to avoid being duped by fake celebrities, maybe it should be a compulsory part of signing up for an account. If you've handed over government issued identification papers during sign-up (driving license, passport etc) to prove who you are, you're significantly less likely to start sending out death threats -- unless you're stupid.
Of course this opens up all manner of privacy concerns. If formal identification was a requirement for creating a Twitter account -- and Twitter would be free to make this compulsory -- it would have be made abundantly clear that personal data such as address and date of birth would only be used when absolutely necessary (so only when tracking down those who have committed crimes or abused other users).
Twitter knowing exactly who each user really is would wipe out many, many problems that exist on the network, but is this getting a little too close to having an online ID card? Maybe, but it's an idea worth considering. It's another idea to throw into the pot and mull over. It's not an ideal solution perhaps, but it's certainly no worse than anything else that’s been suggested.