What does Twitter’s blue tick of approval mean in a post-truth age? The coveted check signals a verified, official Twitter account, but in a media environment where the left is distrusting of “official” government decrees, the right is distrusting of “official” legacy media, and the most revealing information comes from clandestine sources and high-level leaks, verification no longer holds the same weight it once did.
We can no longer rely on third-party appraisal—whether it’s the government, news publications, or social media—to authenticate information for us. Instead, we must seed our own skepticism and verify our suspicions independent of a single source.
This is no more true than on Twitter. The rulebook that governs the relationship between the press and the US government has been casually tossed out, and for better or worse, the US president himself favors using Twitter to bypass the “unkind” press and speak directly to the public. So there was a poetic irony when Donald Trump’s administration issued blanket gag orders on US government agencies, and many of them turned to Twitter to keep their voices from being silenced. From NASA to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there’s an ever-growing list of so-called “rogue” handles run by agency insiders. These accounts are gathering millions of followers and are helping to galvanize a growing resistance movement.
While social-media defiance will be crucial for exercising freedom of speech over the next four years, this movement also raises important questions around the verification (or lack thereof) of these sources.
These whistleblower pages are supposedly run by scientists and government employees who are risking their careers in order to bring us the truth. The National Park Service’s official, government-approved, blue-ticked Twitter handle has a respectable 426k followers—but the now-rebranded @NotAltWorld rogue account has 1.34 million. Meanwhile, the highly questioned @RoguePOTUSStaff account that claims to be run by disgruntled staff working within the White House has managed to accrue over 775k followers in less than a month.
Many have expressed understandable concern that there is no way to verify who is really behind these accounts. Some commentators say these accounts are nothing more than “liberal bait,” while others believe they leave the door open to counter-trolling, and even fraud. In fact, the rogue National Parks Service Twitter account was quickly “handed over” to a group of non-government activists, sparking suspicion that it might have been run by such people all along.
If these accounts are indeed run by people directly defying government orders and breaking confidentiality, Twitter might be considered responsible if it were to provide them with any sort of verification. This could be perceived as endorsement. But is it even possible for Twitter to verify that the employees of these organizations are running these accounts without being complicit in their revealing leaks?
Rogue accounts are nothing new in themselves—accounts supposedly blowing the lid on the inner goings-on of companies like Goldman Sachs and Condé Nast have proved hugely popular—but the highly polarized social climate makes Twitter a much more relevant political battleground. The core issue here is that society seems to be shifting toward a polarized, belief-based system where facts take a backseat to ideology. In the end, the deciding factor in establishing credibility of any news source increasingly boils down to ideological alignment with your own political worldview.
This is because people’s choice of news source is often based on trust. Even before the election, media trust levels sank to unprecedented low levels as 62% of adults turned to social media for news, and the majority of US adults trusted Google and Facebook over official journalistic sources. That is a dangerous corner to paint ourselves into, as it renders authentication obsolete and brings the seeds of media distrust into full bloom.
This public attitude is being reinforced by the current US president, who seems to regard the press as its opposition party. Following the infamous CNN “fake news” incident where Donald Trump point-blank refused to answer Jim Acosta’s question during a press conference, and rumors that the White House Press Corps might get shut down, the Columbia Journalism Review issued an open letter setting out that “access is preferable, but not critical” to reporting. It threw down the gauntlet by stating that journalists would “relish” the challenge of finding alternative sources, implying that even the largest media organizations in the US would start placing their trust in unofficial sources.
This was most recently played out in the resignation of Trump’s national security advisor, Michael Flynn. Unable to gain access to the information they sought from official government sources, the press pushed for and were fed inside information from high-level bureaucrats in the intelligence community, which led to his swift demise.
Those wanting to uphold the principles of a free press can’t afford to ignore this collective shunning of authority. We’re faced with a paradoxical situation where—just like Trump’s lack of experience is a key selling point as far as his supporters are concerned—clout triggers mistrust. Be it a New York Times byline, a CNN logo, or the once-coveted blue tick that signals a verified Twitter account, stamps of authority have become not only redundant, but actually make us question the bearer’s implicit ulterior motives.
The only way to move beyond this paradox is for individuals to realize that every news source—be it the government, press, or social media—has some sort of agenda behind it, no matter how well intentioned. The onus is therefore on us as individuals to become more skeptical and not take anything we read at face value, blue tick of approval or not.