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Twitter finds something new to apologize for [The Interface]

November 9 · Issue #24 · View online
The Interface
Jason Kessler is a white supremacist who organized the United the Right rally in Charlottesville this August. Heather Heyer, a protester, died during the rally, after which Kessler called her “a fat, disgusting communist” and said her death was “payback time.” Yesterday, Twitter verified his account
Outrage followed: the actor Michael Ian Black, a prolific Twitter user, threatened to quit the service. “I don’t want to give up Twitter, but I may have to,” Black tweeted. “Who do you value more, users like me or him?”
It turns out that Twitter values Black more. “Verification was meant to authenticate identity & voice but it is interpreted as an endorsement or an indicator of importance,” the company’s @TwitterSupport handle tweeted this morning. “We recognize that we have created this confusion and need to resolve it.” In the meantime, Twitter said, it is no longer verifying anyone. “We have paused all general verifications while we work and will report back soon.”
The most amazing thing about this debacle — one in a long and embarrassing series of them in recent months for the company — is how little clarity exists around what “verification” means. Initially, it functioned as a way for a company that does not verify the identity of most users to highlight the handful for which it did: celebrities, politicians, athletes, and members of the media, many of whom were at risk of impersonation. 
Then, in January, Twitter removed the verification badge for the noxious provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos. At the time, Twitter told Yiannopoulos that he had violated Twitter’s rules in unspecified ways. But however offensive, Yiannopoulos’ account still belonged to the real-life Yiannopoulos — suggesting verification was akin to an endorsement on Twitter’s part. 
And so it was understandable why the verification of Kessler — who had returned to Twitter after deleting his account in the wake of Charlottesville — caused so much offense. Both men had posted outrageous material on Twitter — the company banned Yiannopoulos permanently a week after de-verifying him, after he inspired a campaign of abuse against the actress Leslie Jones. And so why would it verify Kessler and not Yiannopoulos?
Twitter executives apologized, making full use of the 280 characters that had only recently become available to them. “We should have stopped the current process at the beginning of the year,” tweeted Ed Ho, the head of product. “We knew it was busted as people confuse ID verification with endorsement.” 
People “confuse” verification with endorsement, of course, because Twitter had encouraged them to. By deferring the decision around what endorsement really means, Twitter ensured the issue would eventually blow up in its face. In that, it closely resembles Twitter’s experience with handling abuse generally. 
Recently, at the encouragement of CEO Jack Dorsey, Twitter has strived to be more “transparent” about its inner workings — disclosing, for example, that the person who suspended President Donald Trump’s Twitter account last week was a contractor on their last day. 
And yet that policy, while admirable, has only revealed Twitter’s internal decision-making processes to be even more lax and inconsistent than we previously thought. All these forthright disclosures ought to be heartening, and yet I only find myself more worried.

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