Kara Alaimo: Twitter evaluates behavior based on whether it is "newsworthy and in the legitimate public interest"
But prioritizing newsworthiness when assessing whether something is abusive isn't in the public interest
Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an assistant professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
This week, Twitter stopped verifying accounts after public outcry that the company had bestowed a coveted blue check mark next to the Twitter handle of the white supremacist Jason Kessler. But, in an effort to resolve a public relations disaster, the company is trying to solve the wrong problem.
According to the vague explanation on its website, Twitter verifies the identities behind the accounts of high-profile people like politicians, celebrities and journalists when they’re “of public interest.” This way, readers know they’re real. That’s important, because users have tried to impersonate people like António Guterres, who is now the UN Secretary-General. But Twitter came under fire for verifying Kessler’s account, because the verification creates the appearance that the social media giant might condone his viewpoints.
It would be outrageous for Twitter to suggest that Kessler’s positions are acceptable. As seen in his Twitter bio, Kessler helped organize the Unite the Right protest in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August. The event drew a counter-rally and when a car drove into the crowd, 32-year-old anti-hate protester Heather Heyer was killed. Nineteen other people were injured. And Kessler’s Twitter handle shows a picture of the Confederate flag.
After his account was verified on Wednesday, Kessler bragged on Twitter that he had earned the platform’s mark of “distinction.”
Twitter couldn’t possibly condone Kessler’s ideas, right?
There is a thin a line, and this is where the social platform’s real problem comes into play. Twitter doesn’t have an authentication problem. It has a hate problem. The company’s rules against threatening violence and harassing people are regularly violated with impunity – and sometimes with an official nod from the social media platform itself.
Kessler’s little blue check generated so much backlash that Twitter acknowledged on Thursday that “Verification was meant to authenticate identity & voice but it is interpreted as an endorsement or an indicator of importance.” That part is true. But the company also announced, “We recognize that we have created this confusion and need to resolve it. We have paused all general verifications while we work and will report back soon.” That’s where the company went wrong. Instead of reevaluating their verification process, it should be reevaluating their response to hateful or abusive behavior on their platform.
“The Twitter Rules” acknowledge that one factor the company considers when it evaluates abusive behavior is whether “the behavior is newsworthy and in the legitimate public interest.” But taking into account whether something is newsworthy when deciding whether it constitutes abuse isn’t in the public interest. In September, for example, when Twitter was asked why it hadn’t cracked down on one of President Donald Trump’s tweets which said that the North Korean President and foreign minister might not “be around much longer,” the company said it let the tweet stand because it was newsworthy.
This means that, if you’re famous and powerful (and thus newsworthy), it’s easier to get away with bullying people online. In other words, it instills a system of exploitation by the powerful.
But no one should be allowed to abuse people on Twitter, regardless of how “newsworthy” they are. Twitter should apply the same standards to all people. What they’re doing now is nothing short of discrimination.
Get our free weekly newsletter
Of course, greater clarification about the process of verification would be welcome. For example, the company has repeatedly denied my requests to authenticate my Twitter handle without explanation, even though I meet the criteria on their website.
But that’s not the real problem. If Twitter followed their own rule about supporting what’s in the public’s interest, they wouldn’t end up verifying the accounts of white supremacists or other hateful people, because those accounts wouldn’t exist in the first place. Twitter’s real problem is that its official rules actually allow people to promulgate hate and abuse – if they’re important enough.