The Tricky Rules of Twitter Verification

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
April 3 2012 1:03 PM

Why Does Twitter Keep Verifying Fake Accounts? 

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Stephen Malkmus, who was impersonated on Twitter

Photo by Karl Walter/Getty Images

Last week, Twitter un-verified what appeared to be the account of one-time Pavement frontman Stephen Malkmus. A similar incident occurred the week before involving the band Hoobastank. This follows a high-profile error in January regarding Wendi Deng, the wife of Rupert Murdoch. (That error reportedly had to do with punctuation.) Why does Twitter keep verifying false accounts?

Aisha Harris Aisha Harris

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

Because they’ve never had a straightforward process for verifying the right ones. Verification, symbolized by a blue checkmark next to the handler’s name on Twitter, acts as a seal of authenticity; first launched three years ago, it’s generally reserved for major public figures and prominent businesses and institutions. In other words, not just anyone can be verified. Just who can be, and how, remains a little murky.

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Since the Deng mistake in January, Twitter has taken steps towards organizing their verification process by implementing a pilot partnership with several companies that will be responsible for verifying the accounts of musicians and entertainers—but it appears this new plan has not yet been fully implemented.

Twitter has never expressly stated their selection procedure; when The Wall Street Journal blog Speakeasy looked into the practice last year, a Twitter employee said, “we continue to very selectively verify accounts most at risk for impersonation on a one-off and highly irregular basis.” One year on, after the high-profile mistakes of the last few months, their approach still appears fairly irregular.

Without a firm grasp on Twitter’s process, how can one go about getting verified? One reported way to win that coveted blue check mark is to pay up. According to Ad Age, companies who purchase $15,000 worth of advertising from Twitter over a three month period will be verified by the micro-blogging platform.

For those that would rather not shell out for ads, using a professional go-between seems to help. Charlie Sheen, at the height of his #winning escapades last year, was able to get his account verified quickly by using an internet startup, Ad.ly, that brokered a deal for the actor with Twitter. During an interview explaining Sheen’s swift certification, Ad.ly’s CEO Arnie Gullov-Singh stated that Twitter was “overwhelmed” with verification requests because “they don’t have a team for this.”

By using Ad.ly, Charlie Sheen was not only able to verify his account, but also to get the handle @charliesheen from another user. Claiming handles that are already taken is, if anything, an even murkier matter than getting verified. If someone impersonates a public figure, “squats” on a handle associated with a business or public figure, or uses a trademark-protected name “in a manner that may mislead or confuse others,” then that user may be suspended from Twitter. But what if they just happen to use a handle that someone else wants?

Then it’s theirs—and Twitter insists they’re not allowed to sell it. When Netflix tried to spin off the DVD-mailing part of its business into a separate company called Qwikster, for instance, Twitter users quickly noticed that the name was already taken by a guy named Jason Castillo. He still has the handle—though he hasn’t tweeted since last October—long after the spin-off idea crashed and burned.