It’s hardly a secret that bullying and other forms of online harassment like trolling are a social media epidemic. There is an increasing amount of media coverage about how people’s lives have been impacted offline when they or someone that they care about is subjected to various kinds of online abuse.
When the media reports on victims of cyberbullying and trolling, you will oftentimes hear about it taking place on Twitter and Facebook. In fact, earlier this month, Dick Costolo, CEO of Twitter, acknowledged the platform’s abysmal record when it comes to dealing with complaints of online harassment. He has gone so far as to admit to his staff that it’s all his fault and that he will take full responsibility for ensuring that all necessary resources are provided to address the issue. In addition, Del Harvey, Twitter’s head of trust and safety, recently spoke with the Wall Street Journal on this issue to provide reassurance that the company is taking this whole thing very seriously.
What measures could Twitter take to build a safer and more positive environment?
Jason Calacanis wrote a blog post not long after Costolo’s confession was made public. In it, he pointed out that online harassment has become such a problem for Twitter mainly because there are no controls on the use of pseudonyms rather than real names. Pseudonyms can create a screen that online abusers easily hide behind to launch their threats and harmful words at others with little fear of any real repercussions.
However, Twitter already has a feature that could be very effective in reducing trolling and cyberbullying if it was more widely used. Verified accounts make up an extremely small percentage of total users – roughly 124,000 out of 288 million monthly active users – but they have a built-in level of trust. This is because Twitter has taken measures to ensure that verified users are indeed who they claim to be, whether it’s a company, brand, or person.
Since the precise criteria for being eligible for a verified account are not clear, there has been considerable discussion over how Twitter determines which users are deemed worthy of the white checkmark on a blue cloud. Searching on the web can show you how to get a verified account and how begging Twitter to verify your account is pointless.
Calacanis has proposed that Twitter should introduce the option to allow users to pay for the privilege of having a verified account and to allow them to see updates from only others that are also verified. By adding this option, there would likely be many more verified accounts on Twitter. As a result, the temptation to be abusive online would greatly diminish, and the ability to effectively report online harassment would increase.
However, not everyone is a fan of Calacanis’s proposal. Mashable published a criticism of the idea of paying for having a verified Twitter account. The author, JP Mangalindan, believes that verified accounts will be devalued if the current supposed merit system is abolished in favour of allowing users to pay.
Mangalindan may be missing the point of Calacanis’s post, however. The idea of paying for verified status is more than a cash grab for Twitter. Shouldn’t we at least consider Calacanis’s suggestion and investigate further to determine if it has the potential to address the problem of online harassment? In addition to paying a fee to be considered a verified user, he also mentions identity verification as an important part of the plan – in this case, sending a postcard with a security code on it as a means of validation.
Perhaps waiting for a postcard to arrive in the mail isn’t the most efficient and secure method of sending protected information, but at least it gets the conversation going. One option to consider would be to perform real-time electronic identity verification as part of the Twitter verified account application process. Electronic identity verification would enable users to set up their verified accounts instantly.
One of Twitter’s most famous users, actor William Shatner, has argued that verified accounts are losing their original sense of purpose; that is, to prevent impostors from posing as celebrities. He believes that the current system of verifying accounts is being abused and that only people that the public listens to – such as news anchors, reporters, major bloggers, or authors – should be granted verified status.
Perhaps the time has come to take a closer look at how verified accounts could be used a means of fostering more meaningful and positive discussions on Twitter. Rather than a badge of honour or prestige, could it not be used for the greater good?
Would you pay for a Twitter verified account if it could prevent online harassment?