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.

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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.

39 Responses to Could Twitter's verified accounts be the answer to stopping tweet threats?

  1. its so funny how the internet has done a 180. In the early 90s, I remember how there were warnings to never use your real name in handles and email addresses. Being anonymous was synonymous with safety. Now, everyone is public as themselves and anonymous users are being vilified.

  2. Orv Williams says:

    I have never posted anonymously ... I feel that freedom of speech goes hand in hand with being responsible for what you say. Having the freedom to say what you please doesn't mean there should be no consequences.

    • anonymous is true freedom though. While people have the freedom to say essentially anything unpopular, the consequences could impact the ideas and thoughts. Having an anonymous outlet is the only way to get truly free ideas.

      • Orv Williams says:

        I have to disagree... no freedom should come without responsibility.
        If what you say is true, slander and defamation would simply be freedom of speech without consequence.

    • Mark Wilson says:

      Yes, freedom of speech is one thing, but to expect to be able to say - or incite - illegal things without consequences is absurd. Complete freedom of speech would be very difficult to 'allow' because, as is currently the case, being free to say whatever you want can have catastrophic effects for someone else; freedom of speech should not mean a right to ruin someone's life. As you say, it's about being responsible. I should be able to say something to you that you find deeply offensive, but I do not have the right to threaten your life - even if it was an empty threat.

      • Zootopia3001 says:

        "...but I do not have the right to threaten your life - even if it was an empty threat."
        That's already the case. That's where law enforcement steps in and they take it from there.

      • Mark Wilson says:

        Yes, I know... I was just responding to, and agreeing with, Orv's suggestion that "Having the freedom to say what you please doesn't mean there should be no consequences".

        A lot of people take freedom of speech to the extreme. It is not synonymous with anarchy... or at least shouldn't be! Accountability will always be important, and that's the point I was trying to raise with the article. If everyone is made accountable for their words by the very nature that they have already been identified, I think it would change online behaviour and attitude immensely.

        But to be clear... I'm not suggesting that I think that this is the way to go, just something to chew over

      • Zootopia3001 says:

        "A lot of people take freedom of speech to the extreme. It is not synonymous with anarchy..."
        In the 1700's the British would have considered the free speech of today 'anarchy'. With giving the powers that be 'verification' tools, you make it easier for them to then limit other forms of speech. As long as they can get you regardless, there's no need for verification before the fact. If Twitter wants to do it, so be it. That's their choice. It shouldn't be made(as by law) a requirement across the entire internet. But that's what it will eventually come to once you start down this slippery slope.

      • Mark Wilson says:

        Well, by taking freedom of speech to the 'extreme' I mean just that... that there will be some people who take it to mean that anything goes, that you're free to threaten the lives of others, that you're free to make libellous allegations, etc, but obviously that's not how most people would interpret the notion of freedom of speech.

        Don't forget we are already all too aware of how much control exists online. Websites can be taken down in an instant (they may pop up elsewhere, but they can be blocked - we've seen this in the UK and around the world with torrent sites). Any website, be it Twitter, Facebook, any forum, is free to delete messages, even change users' posts if it decided to do so. The fact that they choose not to does not mean that they couldn't. You are already granted freedom of speech on their terms.

        The slippery slope you refer to is one we have been on for a long time. Governments could cut the internet if they wanted to. The US and UK could be as monitored (ahem) and controlled as China. Again, it's on 'their' terms.

        So to suggest that enforcing mandatory account verification would limit freedom of speech is not the case. Freedom of speech is already limited, content is easy eliminated or censored. But compulsory verification would at least, hopefully, make people think before casually typing out a death threat to someone they disagree with. If the job of catching people that do things like this is made slightly easier, then great! But don't for one minute think that you currently have a free internet - you have a relatively free internet, but that could change at any time. The NSA and GCHQ debacle goes to show how little we know about what's going on in the background..... things could be so much worse. It's nowhere near ideal at the moment - either in terms of freedom or policing - but it could be a hell of a lot worse.But that's not to say we shouldn't look to improve things

        I'm only talking about trying to make Twitter slightly safer and more pleasant.

      • Zootopia3001 says:

        If you were to ask for verification here at Betanews, you'd most likely end up with half the page hits than you normally do, if not worse.

        Basically what you're saying is to feel more secure, we must give up some privacy. Where have I heard that before? Me, I say let the law enforcement officials handle it. Report threats, and they will be dealt with accordingly. The tools are already there.

        Me, I've had my life threatened once, back in 2001 when someone didn't dig what I had to say about the Islam religion. I blew off the threat. Besides, they had no idea who I was and I want to keep it that way.

      • Mark Wilson says:

        The article is about Twitter specifically, but I guess it could be extended to Betanews in this hypothetical scenario. If verification was the norm, it would have no effect on page hits.

        Of course security comes with some disadvantages. You have to lock your car so it doesn't get stolen. This means it takes you slightly longer to set off on your journey and means you have something to lose that could prevent you from using your car at all. Do you give up on driving?

        Yes, ultimately things should be left to law enforcement, but if things can be made easier (and thereby cheaper) in any way, it's worth looking at.

        As I've said, the article is meant to prompt discussion, open debate. It's not my vision for the future!

      • Zootopia3001 says:

        "If verification was the norm, it would have no effect on page hits."
        If it were the norm, of course. But why just Twitter? Just because it's widely used at the moment? Somehow I doubt it would be widely used if verification were to be. Then on to the next social networking site to push for verification, and so on, and so on.

      • Mark Wilson says:

        Why just Twitter? I didn't say 'just Twitter'. The article is about Twitter's verified accounts, hence Twitter being the focus.

        I would not expect this idea to be adopted by Twitter or any other site... It's just a springboard for ideas and debate. I'm not pretending to have the answer!

  3. barely_normal says:

    It is easy enough to be relatively anonymous, until you do something very, very unpopular. Also, don't forget how helpful the NSA could be in finding someone trying to hide. They do, after all, see it all.

    I always use a pseudonym, yet it is easy to see who I am if you take the time to do it, but that small layer of protection keeps many annoyances away - only those really invested will bother to look further.

    • Mark Wilson says:

      A huge proportion of people use pseudonyms online, but I'm not sure this offers much of a 'layer of protection', save from possibly fending off casual stalkers. If you post a bomb threat using your pseudonym, you're just as traceable as if you used your real name

      • Zootopia3001 says:

        Then there's no need for 'verified' accounts.

      • Mark Wilson says:

        But by being verified, it makes things quicker and simpler for whatever authorities have to get involved. No need to trace back internet activity to a computer and work out who was using at the time a particular message was posted, the information is already there.

        And forcing the use of verified accounts would act as a deterrent. There is a belief that posting on Twitter et al is anonymous even though it isn't really beneath the surface. If it is made abundantly clear to everyone that their identity IS known, people who might otherwise have posted death threats etc would probably reconsider... and if they didn't, then bringing them to justice would be that much easier

      • Tumultus says:

        But doesn't it also go the other way? A person that is now "veryfied" would have posted something and expose himself (planning a crime or whatever) if he would think that his identity is not known to the public. Law enforcement could have easily get his real ID and catch him before he goes off shooting people or whatever he may have had up is sleeve.

        However you turn it, you can find just as many arguements against the usage of real names as you can find for it.

      • Mark Wilson says:

        You make a good point.

        However, I think in most cases the deterrent of knowing that your name and address was already logged would be enough to stop a lot of illicit online activity - threats etc.

        Note, I said a lot of, not all. There will always be unhinged people in the world who will grab a gun and shoot masses of people - obviously it is not possible to stop everything from happening. If someone has decided they're going to go off on a rampage, they'll do it regardless of the consequences.. after all, the death penalty seems to do little to stop gun crime etc.

      • barely_normal says:

        I think you are giving a false equivalency. Those stupid enough to make threats on Twitter are either very stupid, in which case they will certainly be caught, or very intelligent, and know the ways to assure that they will not be caught - such as using a computer at a library. The point remains, should you want to do something anonymously, and also possess some rudimentary knowledge, you will achieve your goals.

      • Mark Wilson says:

        Using a library in a computer would make no difference if you were using a verified account in this scenario... Someone accused of abuse on Twitter would have to show that someone else had been using their account. Of course, then there is the issue of 'innocent until proven guilty'. .. There is no easy answer, I don't think.

        In this theoretical Twitter world, user accounts are not anonymous... That's the point. Proxies etc would have no bearing on things assuming accounts were kept secured

      • Art Faucett says:

        Nice to see you stand up for the trolls

      • barely_normal says:

        I'll make a note, though I doubt I will be posting any bomb threats.

  4. Zootopia3001 says:

    Over at CNBC right now at this very moment there is a discussion going on about people deleting other people's posts via the 'Report Abuse' button... All done by using multiple 'puppet' accounts.

    • Art Faucett says:

      Free speech unless they don't like it. It's how that embarrassment of former "network"usually works

    • Mark Wilson says:

      This is something I touched on in another article. Any system of reporting problems is, sadly, going to be open to abuse. Whether it's reporting problems on Twitter or calling the emergency services, someone will always misuse a tool that's been put there for the benefit/safety of others.

      Any system has to factor in the asshole aspect.

      • Zootopia3001 says:

        There are a LOT of 'assholes' over at Huffington Post. Disagree with the liberal point of view and POOF, you're gone, and sometimes even your account. Yes, they gots a 'Report Abuse' button also.

      • Mark Wilson says:

        I'm not involved in moderation of comments (anywhere), so I couldn't really comment.

        Any site is free to have an agenda that it enforces if it wants, though. Within reason, one would expect to have the right to reply in the name of freedom of speech, but clearly that's not always the case. Newspapers and other high profile websites are usually the most keen to keep things on topic and stop thread running off into shambolic chaos. But the thing about the internet is - you're free to create your own site to voice your own opinion.

        This article wasn't really designed as a look at free speech (although obviously it is involved to some extent), but rather a look at how the serious problem of Twitter users receiving death and rape threats could be addressed. I'm not sure that stopping something that is a crime from happening could be regarded as a repression of freedom of speech (really).

        I'm interested to hear ideas about how other people would tackle the problem on Twitter - and other sites, but Twitter the site de jour.

      • Zootopia3001 says:

        "Any site is free to have an agenda that it enforces if it wants..."
        It's not the site enforcing an agenda, it's the members and even some of the moderators. If your posts are liberal in content, you'll end up getting all sorts of badges, friends, gold stars and pink clovers(from the LBGT community, no doubt). Anything else gets you deleted.

      • Mark Wilson says:

        Ah... I misunderstood you...

        That's a different matter entirely. If you have a problem with a site's moderators, or the way its commenting system works and can be influenced with up and down votes, that's something you'd have to take up with the site in question.

        I'm not sure that account verification would have any bearing on what you describe.

        If you use any site, you have to put up with the way it works to some extent - and you're going to have to endure other users as well!

        Feel free to vent more, but I was interested in people's views on the policing/management of Twitter specifically... the article's about 'tweet threats' after all...

      • Zootopia3001 says:

        So far today it seems the only one concerned about Tweet threats is you. Just as I blew off a threat in 2001, many others do as well. Welcome to the new age of the internet. Seems as though Eric Holder has blown some of it off as well. The George Zimmerman case as a case in point.

      • Mark Wilson says:

        Considering the politicians and journalists in the UK who have contacted the police having been harassed and subjected to bomb and rape threats, I'm sure I'm not the only one concerned about tweet threats. Just because you and others managed to 'blow it off' doesn't mean that the issue should be ignored. If you were attacked by a mugger but managed to tackle them and avoid having anything stolen would you say that nothing needed to be done about mugging?

        I'm pleased to say I've never been threatened online, via tweet, email or whatever, but that doesn't mean I'm ignorant of the fact that there is a problem - you might be able to dismiss it, but for the women (and probably men) who have been the subjects of serious abuse on Twitter, it's not something that can, or should, be just brushed under the carpet.

      • Zootopia3001 says:

        I don't refer to Britain as 'Drunk Britain' for nothin'. Sounds more like a case of alcohol abuse to me.

      • Mark Wilson says:

        Drink may well be involved somewhere along the line!

      • barely_normal says:

        I am a large user of HuffPo, and I'd have to disagree - I see a great deal of dissension from those on the right [sometimes I am one of them, as I don't fit neatly on either side].

        As a matter of fact, I have had posts deleted, which had no political bias at all, which makes me wonder what the problem was. Since I have never received any warnings, I just assume it is some anomaly of the software, where things get lost, as there are more than a few glitches in what they have set up there.

      • Mark Wilson says:

        Unless you were using profane language - which could easily be detected by software - it is more likely that missing comments have been deleted by a moderator... I'm not sure you would *necessarily* get a warning.

      • barely_normal says:

        I never use profanity, as I think it is evidence of insufficiency of brain function. That is why, no matter what I say, since there is no profanity, I see no reason ANY message of mine should ever be deleted.

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