Twitter is the strange new kingmaker of the 21st century

At first, Twitter had no association with birds.
At first, Twitter had no association with birds.
Image: AP Photo/Richard Drew
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In July, Twitter took the unusual step of banning alt-right provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos from its social-media platform. Yiannopoulos had a long history of directing verbal abuse at Twitter users, and the company apparently decided he’d gone too far in his harassment of Ghostbusters actress Leslie Jones.

The move was noteworthy not just because it signaled an evolution in Twitter’s attitudes toward online harassment, but because the company has historically been biased in favor of well-known people—a category under which both Jones and, to a lesser extent Yiannopoulos, fall. Twitter’s verification system and application of its community standards frequently provide celebrities with special treatment. Yet while Twitter long ago realized that its monetization is dependent on drawing big names to its platform, the company has more recently come to the realization that allowing abusive celebrities to use its platform as a vehicle is bad for business, too. The Twitter of today is a company constantly grappling with the question of how to implement a global standard for behavior that applies to all users while still raking in cash.

Twitter as kingmaker

In 2009, Twitter launched its “verified” accounts feature after numerous celebrities complained about impersonators on the platform. At first, anyone could fill out a form to verify their account. But soon the feature was limited to the elite: movie stars, pop artists, official government agencies, news publications, and the like. Later, newsrooms were given a way to easily verify their staff, and executive directors of NGOs were offered verification as well.

Systematically excluded from the process were freelance journalists. Political figures in lesser-known countries have also complained about the difficulty of getting verified. Twitter apparently refuses to verify Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s head of state. Meanwhile, the blue “verified” check has been extended to countless teenagers with high follower counts on the video-sharing platform Vine (which Twitter owns) and B-list movie actors.

Twitter’s verification process opened up again recently in order to help more users avoid impersonation. But so far, my timeline remains filled with complaints from freelance journalists, academics, and NGO employees whose requests have been denied.

The impact of verification goes deeper than a blue checkmark, obviously. As blogger Anil Dash demonstrated in a blog post, Twitter prompts newly verified users to “increase their trustworthiness” by following other verified users—a shortcut to creating a filter bubble made up of . Verified users also have access to special tools that allow them to filter out non-verified users. Individuals who have been verified appear in a list of suggested users presented to new signups to the platform, making it easier to get new followers as well.

And so the verification policy gives Twitter—a corporation whose purpose it is to maximize shareholder profit—the ability to play kingmaker. By verifying a 17-year-old kid whose funny Vine posts have gotten him thousands of followers or a press mention or two, the company is making a determination that this is a person is worthy of the special privileges—and features—that such status entails. And when Twitter denies a freelance writer or a professor such privileges, the company assists the existing stratification inherent to these professions.

Special status

So what happens when a verified user runs afoul of Twitter policy? That depends on who the user is.

In May, verified rapper and singer Azealia Banks was suspended from Twitter following a series of racist tweets directed at former One Direction star Zayn Malik (also a verified user). As the Guardian explains, it wasn’t the rapper’s first offense. Banks had previously lashed out at other verified celebrities and was known for her “inflammatory and unfiltered Twitter presence.”

Twitter also gave Yiannopoulos a lot of chances. Before banning him for going after Jones, the company had earlier stripped away his verified status. While the company maintains a policy of refusing to comment on individual accounts, a Twitter executive speculated that it might have been because Yiannopoulos had suggested that another user deserved harassment.

It’s unclear whether the outcome for Banks or Yiannopoulos would have been different if they had directed their hate at non-celebrities. What is clear is that the complaints of ordinary users who report harassment on the platform often go unheard, while harassment of celebrities is dealt with much more swiftly.

Twitter’s bias in favor of the rich and famous is apparent in other areas as well. In 2014, after ISIL published graphic video of the brutal beheading of journalist James Foley, Twitter’s then-CEO Dick Costolo announced that the company was actively suspending accounts that shared the video. The move was in line with Twitter’s existing policy as well as the express wishes of Foley’s family. But the policy’s implementation was far from even-handed. Although numerous publications—including the New York Post—had shared the videos, it was primarily “ordinary users” that lost their accounts. The Post’s transgression was ignored, despite a history of racist and other objectionable content.

One possible explanation for the discrepancy is that the New York Post is simply worth more to Twitter. Owned by News Corp, the extremely lucrative multinational media conglomerate, the Post is not only a potential source of advertising revenue for Twitter, but has also been described as “very litigious” by former UK culture secretary Jeremy Hunt.

Such factors may explain why Twitter can afford to cut ties with relative small fries like Banks or Yiannopoulos but has refused to do so with Donald Trump, even though the loathsome Republican nominee uses the platform to spew hate on a daily basis—in several cases quite clearly in defiance of Twitter’s rules. The candidate also happens to be both (allegedly) extremely wealthy and notorious for filing lawsuits.

Twitter’s rules are meant to apply to all of its users. But it’s become increasingly clear that when celebrities and powerful organizations are involved, different considerations come into play.

Who’s the news?

Even worse than Twitter’s king-making, however, is its ability to determine for the public what (or who) is or is not a valid news source. When freelancers or small independent news sites struggle to become verified, it is consequently more difficult for them to prove their identities (and trustworthiness) to potential sources, thus strengthening the existing divide between mainstream and independent media. And when some news sources are allowed to post certain kinds of content, but other, typically unverified users are not, Twitter crosses the line into censorship.

As a society, we’ve already ceded power to corporations to police our speech. After all, freedom of speech protections under the Constitution do not apply to what users say in the domain of private corporations. BuzzFeed has called (somewhat hyperbolically) for a “first amendment for social platforms,” a public commitment “not just to opaque and ad hoc rules, but to time-honored principles and process.”

While a Constitutional amendment may not be in order, there’s no doubt that social-media companies do need to commit to making their platforms a more equal playing field. With 310 million average active monthly users, Twitter has become an important platform for speech in our everyday lives. Journalists use it to find sources; politicians campaign through their tweets; and countless individuals use it to connect with others, organize, and share information. Twitter regularly claims that it cares about freedom and openness. If that’s true, it needs to make sure its policies facilitate the exchange of ideas rather than replicate the power structures that exist outside of the digital sphere.