Edited image by Twitter and Robin Higgins
You’ve made it.
Today is the greatest day of your life.
You’ve made it. The hard yards are over.
Maybe you’re a journalism student who finally got their dream job at one of the papers in D.C. Your YA novel has been accepted by one of the Big Five, and readers are already giving it rave reviews. You’ve been cast in a role in a major film—your big break. Your YouTube video is on trending. You’ve gone viral. You’re famous.
You also have a Twitter account.
Maybe you first joined Twitter on a whim. Your Journalism 101 professor suggested it, and you were using it sporadically. The lengthy terms and conditions that came with your book advance hinted strongly at joining all the social media sites. You’re an aspiring actor and your agent created one, but now you’re finally behind the handle instead of the PR team.
You’re excited because you received an email. And a notification in your mentions. You tell everyone that matters IRL. More importantly, you tell everyone on Twitter. You’re a VITU. A Very Important Twitter User.
There it is. The blue verified checkmark.
You’ve made it.
You are now the bane of Twitter.
Twitter has a verified checkmark problem. If you don’t know what a verified checkmark is, you should congratulate yourself. You are a simple person, innocent to the toxicity and hatred spewing from the site that looks so unassuming at first. How can a website in that sky blue shade with the cute twittering bird be so…vile?
Social media sites like Twitter need a way to show you the celebrity or public figure you’re seeing is actually the celebrity or public figure. Just because the account claims to be “United States President” or “Famous Actress #982135” or “Pop Star With Autotuned Voice That Sounds Like Alvin and the Chipmunks”, doesn’t mean it is. Plenty of scammers and spammers and plain old fans pretend to be their favorite celebrities for innocent or nefarious reasons. That’s why the verified checkmark exists. Twitter’s Help Center on verified accounts says:
The blue verified badge on Twitter lets people know that an account of public interest is authentic.
An account may be verified if it is determined to be an account of public interest. Typically this includes accounts maintained by users in music, acting, fashion, government, politics, religion, journalism, media, sports, business, and other key interest areas.
A verified badge does not imply an endorsement by Twitter.
These are Very Important People. They are of the public interest. And don’t ninety percent of these VITU’s know it!?
In mid-March, ex-Teen Vogue and Huffington Post journalist Lauren Duca was revealed to be teaching an NYU course on social media and journalism. Where’s the controversy? one might ask. Social media plays a vital role in journalism. Many stories break over Twitter, and citizen journalists and freelancers can have a platform on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the like.
Duca is a prominent feminist journalist, and her course is entitled The Feminist Journalist. In her syllabus, Duca rants about centrism (“the mental Napalm that I call ‘both sides-ism’.”), Donald Trump (“the midst of the ongoing American dumpster fire”) and journalism through a feminist lens. In the final class, you get to “eat junk food and have feelings about our past six weeks together”. None of this captured the constantly flitting attention spans of those on Twitter. Nope. It’s Duca’s grading scale:
Professional Twitter account project, due August 6: 20%
Twitter users questioned why having a professional Twitter account was so vital to journalism. Why do journalists need a Twitter account, especially when social media sites are seemingly responsible for the downfall of news media? Why would a regular person, well versed in the internet, even need to visit a news site when they read the news on Facebook or Twitter? You can completely bypass, say the New York Times or a typical feminist blog, just by reading the news on Facebook and Twitter, denying these dying mediums clicks and ad revenue.
Naturally, there were some Twitter users who were a little—shall we say, heavy-handed—in their criticisms of Duca, but we know Twitter Checkmarks do not care for nuance, and will pretend the worst response is all responses.
They were furious. How dare human beings say Twitter is not this vital in this day and age!? First, we had Duca herself, mocking anyone who dared to criticize her favorite site:
Twitter is so important, guuuyss. It is because I say it is. Shhh. Let me make excuses for wasting nineteen hours a day on a site I consider utter garbage!
Hmm, how about not having a Twitter account and not allowing Twitter to have the command over Breaking News? Is that not an answer?
Next, we have a very concerning tweet from a Twitter Checkmark. How cliquey and insular is it that journalists need to have a Twitter account to survive in this day and age? One would have thought to make it in journalism, you need to, say, actually write articles?
But it’s not just Verified Twitter Journalists who believe they are above everyone else. The tweet from Alexis Benveniste is just the beginning of the toxic, insular community that is the Verified Twitter community.
What once started as a community of public figures, has now changed to what Twitter deems, “of public interest”. Note these two things are not the same. One can have less than a thousand followers, be a virtual unknown, and be deemed “in the public interest” and worthy of the coveted Tick of Honor. On the other hand, someone can be well-known to the public and remain unverified because they are deemed “toxic” and “Twitter endorses their behavior”, even though Twitter’s Terms of Service state the opposite.
Verified Checkmarks have influence over Twitter. In The Toxicity Of Blue Tick Culture, Phaylen Fairchild talks about how results by Verified Checkmarks will appear before all others in search results. If you are searching a popular hashtag, Verified Checkmarks, no matter how relevant, will appear at the top of results, telling you exactly what they think, no matter how irrelevant.
Let’s put this theory into action. We’ll search the name John Smith.
So what happens when you have a bunch of seemingly unknowns, who all appear at the top of your search results and mixed into popular hashtags, and in your Who To Follow section? Well, you have a lot of narcissism in one small subsection of the internet, that’s what.
And it can be very dangerous.
In late 2017, Twitter announced not just any average Joe or Joanna could apply for a Verified Checkmark:
This was in response to many things, namely a bunch of alleged white supremacists like Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler were verified on Twitter. Yet again, Twitter explicitly states in their Terms of Service they do not endorse Verified Checkmarks, just that it’s a sign of who is in the “public interest.”
Even if these far-Right figures are awful, horrible people—which many undoubtedly are—aren’t they in the public interest? No offense to Joe Blow down the road with 150 followers and a blue checkmark, but how is he of more interest than unverified people of note? Aren’t those in the far-Right in the public interest? Pushing them slowly off these platforms forces them to go underground, where they can create untold damage in their own seedy, insular echo chambers.
Fairchild puts it well:
The blue tick is no longer a symbol of authenticity, but one of status and privilege instead. Now, they’re influencers who are put on the front page of “Moments” and are suggested immediately to new users signing up who need a few friends to follow. Twitter places these knighted users in proverbial bold print at the center of attention while the rest of the struggle to sift through them to find [even] their friend.
The Twitter checkmark does not mean one is in the public interest, and Twitter knows this well. Otherwise, well-known figures with hundreds of thousands of followers would all be verified.
They aren’t. That’s because Twitter has become too insular for its own good.
[if] they don’t know your name, you’re not getting verified, regardless of your notability or achievements in the greater world. Twitter has, in effect, become its own world.
Regular Twitter users compete to win coveted roles as Twitter Checkmarks. They aim to say the most absurd, Fake Woke things they possibly can, so they can emulate their idols.
The truth: Twitter Checkmarks don’t care if you’re not one of them. You’re just engagement to them. You are the likes and the retweets and the comments and the followers. Just have a look at how often the regular Twitter Checkmark engages with their followers, and suffice to say, it’s not a lot. Most of the time, they will only respond to political figures (cough Donald Trump cough) they loathe. The regular, “not in the public interest” users are the ones who keep Twitter alive, yet they mean nothing to Twitter.
This is a corporation issue. We also have sites like YouTube, who ignore the regular creators to focus on YouTubers they consider profitable, and one just needs to look at YouTube Rewind 2018 to see how well that went.
Verified Checkmarks are a concerning sign of the rampant narcissism and echo chambers that infiltrate social media sites like Twitter. They believe they are more important than everyone else, and those behind the scenes at Twitter are all-too-willing to make that a reality.
Of course it is important to talk, to have places where we can freely discuss politics and other important issues, but this is not the way to go about it. Lauren Duca and her rag-tag band of journalists-masquerading-as-regular-folk do not represent a place for lively discussion and debate. In fact, these Verified Checkmarks represent the opposite. They stifle debate. They encourage divisiveness.
While they’re busy in their insular communities, tweeting 20,000 times a day about how Republicans are toxic narcissists (they very may well be) and how Twitter is sooooooo important, remember they are only allowing the toxicity of Twitter to thrive and narcissistically give their egos a boost.
We can stop this.
Nip the toxicity in the bud. Stop giving these people voices. Only respond to the Verified Checkmarks who do not engage in this behavior.
If you want to keep journalism alive, Twitter is not the place. Turn your AdBlocker off. Go on their sites. If not, and I can definitely understand, pay for your news. Pay for the sites and papers you trust so they can stay alive.
And for fuck’s sake, Twitter, stop giving virtual nobodies Verified Checkmarks. You’re not helping your cause here.