Who deserves a “verified” badge? On Twitter, the issue has been surprisingly contentious. Last November, the company briefly verified the account of Jason Kessler, a white supremacist who organized the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, VA. Reaction to Kessler getting his badge was swift and negative, and Twitter used the occasion to say — as it now likes to do, all the time — that it would use the occasion to rethink everything. In the case of verification, the company would simply stop verifying anyone until it could say for certain what it meant to be verified.
“Verification was meant to authenticate identity & voice but it is interpreted as an endorsement or an indicator of importance,” the company said in a tweet. “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.”
As I’ve written before, Twitter’s verification process was a mess from the start. It began as a panicked reaction to former St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony LaRussa suing the company for allowing someone to impersonate him. (LaRussa eventually dropped the suit.) But verification evolved into something both more important and more nebulous, as I wrote last year:
Over time, though, Twitter began granting special privileges to verified users. They got analytics, which were otherwise available only to advertisers, showing them how their tweets performed. They got a tab showing only their interactions with other verified users — a ham-fisted way of dealing with the abuse that celebrities received from regular accounts. When Twitter introduced new keyword filters designed to combat abuse, verified users got them first.
Along the way, Twitter said very little about the criteria for verification. For years, there was no obvious way to apply. Either Twitter reached out to you, or you got to know someone at the company. And so the verification badge came to carry a sheen of authority: this person, the badge suggested, is a known quantity. This is an account that Twitter trusts.
The real trouble began in January 2016, when Twitter removed the badge from the profile of noxious right-wing personality Milo Yiannopoulos. No one disputed that the account belonged to Yiannopoulos. By removing his badge for bad behavior, the company suggested that the blue checkmark was also a mark of approval.
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The next year, after the Kessler debacle, Twitter said it would begin taking users’ offline behavior into account in determining who should be verified. This March, CEO Jack Dorsey said Twitter could eventually let everyone verify their accounts. And then last month, in a comical final note to the entire affair, Twitter announced that it was abandoning the verification project indefinitely because it was busy working on other things.
I apologize for the lengthy preamble here. But in a world where trust in social feeds is collapsing, a workable verification system could serve as a powerful ally. And so I was heartened to see today that Instagram had quietly tackled the verification process on its own — and come up with something workable and useful.
The short version is that anyone can now apply to be verified on Instagram, though the company will continue to verify only those who meet a high set of standards, including “notability.” (Sorry, normals.) Cofounder Mike Krieger laid out the particulars in a blog post:
To be verified, an account must comply with Instagram’s Terms of Service and Community Guidelines. We will review verification requests to confirm the authenticity, uniqueness, completeness and notability of each account. Visit the Help Center to learn more about Instagram’s verification criteria.
To access the verification request form, go to your profile, tap the menu icon, select “Settings” at the bottom and then choose “Request Verification.” You will need to provide your account username, your full name and a copy of your legal or business identification. This information will not be shared publicly.
Here Krieger has laid out, in plain language, what it means to be verified on Instagram. The company has verified that you are who you say you are; that you only have one account; and that the account is “notable” in some way. What does that mean? The Help Center lays it out: “Currently, only Instagram accounts that have a high likelihood of being impersonated have verified badges.”
The policy isn’t democratic in the sense of Dorsey’s spring proclamation that someday everyone could have a badge on Twitter. But it does open the door to more people getting badges on Instagram, and doing its part to improve trust on the service.
Notably, the announcement came with two other trust-improving measures. One, Instagram will now allow users to improve the security of their accounts by using third-party authenticator apps, an improvement over the more easily hacked SMS codes. And two, a new “About this account” feature attached to profiles will show you information that is helpful in identifying fake accounts:
There, you will see the date the account joined Instagram, the country where the account is located, accounts with shared followers, any username changes in the last year and any ads the account is currently running.
These are smart measures that help Instagram build trust in its user base, while making it harder for bad actors to exploit its platform. By approaching the question of verification as narrowly as possible — focused only on eliminating the confusion that comes from impersonation and parody — Instagram arrived at a reasonable way to invite its entire user base to apply.
Of course, Instagram’s historical status as a way to share cheerful brunch photos with friends means it hasn’t been stress-tested in quite the same way Twitter has. Yiannopoulos has an Instagram account that would seem to meet all of Krieger’s stated requirements for verification; will Instagram grant him a badge? If yes, than we’ll see a reprise of the attacks Twitter faced when it verified Kessler. If not, then expect to see a bunch of conservatives who aren’t granted badges taking center stage in an eventual Congressional hearing about Instagram “shadow banning” Republicans.
But until then, I’m struck by how a question that reduced Twitter to paralysis got such a straightforward answer from its rival. Journalists often wag their fingers when tech companies copy one another — but if Twitter wants to lift this idea wholesale, I promise to limit myself to a respectful nod.
President Donald Trump tweeted this morning that Google search results for “Trump News” have been “rigged” to show critical coverage of him, and said the situation “will be addressed.” Google explained that search results are not “rigged” in the political sense of the word. The Times’ Maggie Haberman pointed out that Trump doesn’t actually use a computer. Matthew Gertz pointed out that the entire tweetstorm seemed to be predicated on a segment on Fox News’ Lou Dobbs Tonight, which itself was based on a nonsensical chart promoted by the hyperpartisan right-wing news outlet PJ Media. Trump’s economic adviser said “we’re taking a look at it.” An exasperated Fox News’ Shepard Smith stared into the camera and shouted, “what is he talking about?!” Trump then sent out a fundraising pitch based on his comments.
A coalition of 14 organizations — including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and the Center for Democracy and Technology — wrote an open letter to Google on Tuesday calling for the company to abandon plans to launch a censored version of its search engine in China. Ryan Gallagher reports:
Google is a member of the Global Network Initiative, or GNI, a digital rights organization that works with a coalition of companies, human rights groups, and academics. All members of the GNI agree to implement a set of principles on freedom of expression and privacy, which appear to prohibit complicity in the sort of broad censorship that is widespread in China. The principles state that member companies must “respect and work to protect the freedom of expression rights of users” when they are confronted with government demands to “remove content or otherwise limit access to communications, ideas and information in a manner inconsistent with internationally recognized laws and standards.”
Following the revelations about Dragonfly, sources said, members of the GNI’s board of directors – which includes representatives from Human Rights Watch, the Center for Democracy and Technology, and the Committee to Protect Journalists – confronted Google representatives in a conference call about its censorship plans. But the Google officials were notresponsive to the board’s concerns or forthcoming with information about Dragonfly, which caused frustration and anger within the GNI.
Tech companies’ government work is also causing problems for recruiters, Caroline O’Donovan reports:
Meshulam’s refusal to consider working for Amazon until the company addresses ethical concerns that employees and outside watchdogs have raised is part of a larger trend. Using the hashtag #TechWontBuildIt, a handful of tech workers on Twitter have shared how they’re rejecting interviews with companies like Amazon and Salesforce, either because they disagree with the company’s practices or don’t want to help build its products.
Trained programmers, software engineers, and data scientists are in notoriously high demand in the tech industry. Companies spend millions of dollars on recruiting efforts every year and offer a dizzying array of perks and benefits (lengthy parental leave, infertility treatment, free beer, unlimited vacation) to entice workers. That means prospective employees have leverage — and some of them are trying to use it to get these companies to change their ways. The actions of a handful of individuals are unlikely to steer corporate policy, but the trend could signal a looming recruiting pipeline problem if the companies don’t change tack.
More than Facebook 100 employees have formed a group to promote conservative views and political debate, Kate Conger and Sheera Frenkel report:
Mr. Amerige proposed that Facebook employees debate their political ideas in the new group — one of tens of thousands of internal groups that cover a range of topics — adding that this debate would better equip the company to host a variety of viewpoints on its platform.
“We are entrusted by a great part of the world to be impartial and transparent carriers of people’s stories, ideas and commentary,” Mr. Amerige wrote. “Congress doesn’t think we can do this. The president doesn’t think we can do this. And like them or not, we deserve that criticism.”
U.S. tech companies would like you to know that there is only so much they can do with respect to fighting foreign influence campaigns, Ali Breland reports. But I liked this note of optimism from researcher Renee DiResta, with respect to the rising cost of influence campaigns:
DiResta said costs are rising for influence campaigns. In 2016, she said, the process was much easier: Russia did very little to cover their tracks and they were able to spread their message through basic, cheap and easy to use bots.
It’s not that simple anymore.
“If you want to get something trending, you need something that evades Twitter bot detection mechanisms,” DiResta said. “To do that you need people typing original things. So it takes a lot more work to evade bot detection now that it did in 2016.”
Twitter suspended more accounts for “coordinated manipulation,” and for the most part they were tweeting leftist anti-Trump stuff, Catherine Hsu reports:
Following last week’s suspension of 284 accounts for “engaging in coordinated manipulation,” Twitter announced today that it’s kicked an additional 486 accounts off the platform for the same reason, bringing the total to 770 accounts.
While many of the accounts removed last week appeared to originate from Iran, Twitter said this time that about 100 of the latest batch to be suspended claimed to be in the United States. Many of these were less than a year old and shared “divisive commentary.” These 100 accounts tweeted a total of 867 times and had 1,268 followers between them.
Microsoft nearly shut down hate-oriented Twitter alternative Gabthis month when it found genocidal anti-Semitic posts on the network. On The Vergecast this week, Microsoft’s president, Brad Smith, revealed that the posts were found by Microsoft customer support agents, and that top executives learned about the takedown notice they sent Gab after reading about it on The Verge and other tech sites.
“While we were sleeping on the West Coast of the United States, an employee in India had sort of turned out an email that went to Gab that said, ‘We’ve spotted some content, and under our policy, you have to address it in 48 hours or you risk being cut off.’”
Smith said executives reviewed the decision after being contacted by journalists, including The Verge. But ultimately, he said, there was little to review: it was “a relatively straightforward judgment call because the content was so extreme.”
If you work at Facebook, and are constantly explaining to your exasperated friends and family members that you are not selling their data, here’s a story to make you pound your desk. It turns out Yahoo — now a division of Oath! — has been scanning Yahoo Mail inboxes for years and then selling that data to advertisers. Doug MacMillan, Sarah Krouse, and Keach Hagey have the scoop:
Yahoo’s owner, the Oath unit of Verizon Communications Inc., VZ -0.36% has been pitching a service to advertisers that analyzes more than 200 million Yahoo Mail inboxes and the rich user data they contain, searching for clues about what products those users might buy, said people who have attended Oath’s presentations as well as current and former employees of the company.
Oath said the practice extends to AOL Mail, which it also owns. Together, they constitute the only major U.S. email provider that scans user inboxes for marketing purposes.
The Verge republished Sarah Jeong’s book The Internet of Garbage. First published in 2015, the book examines how online harassment works, and why the structure of the internet has enabled it to flourish.
YouTubers punching one another in the face is catnip to the large swath of YouTubers who make videos about YouTube drama. After this weekend’s Logan Paul-KSI face-punching contest, creators raced to upload their reaction videos, complete with footage of the event. Others streamed the fight in its entirety on Twitch, in blatant circumvention of the rules of the site. KSI’s team sicced a bunch of copyright goons on them all, and now everyone is mad, Julia Alexander reports:
Most people in the community can agree that streaming a fight, one which KSI’s team invested a fair bit of money into along with sponsors, isn’t cool. They can also agree, however, that not allowing people to make commentary videos about the fight is equally upsetting.
Remove “climate change” from the list of things that you blame Facebook for. Shannon Liao reports:
Facebook announced today that it’s reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by 75 percent and will make its operations run on 100 percent renewable energy by the end of 2020. These efforts are part of its pledge to combat climate change.
The company has signed contracts for more than 3 gigawatts of new solar and wind energy since it began such efforts in 2013, it writes in a blog post. These wind and solar projects are built on the same grid as Facebook data centers, including centers in Oregon, Virginia, New Mexico, and Sweden.
Some people don’t like Tinder, Kari Paul reports:
Hinge saw its user base grow by more than 400% after redesigning the platform in 2017 to eliminate its swiping feature after learning 80% of its users had never found a long-term relationship on a dating app, according to Justin McLeod, Hinge’s CEO and co-founder. The changes were meant to foster more selectivity. Heterosexual men swipe right or “like” 70% of women on swiping apps but “like” just 20% on Hinge, he says.
“Some apps flatten people and objectify them, making them into a little card you can swipe through,” Mr. McLeod says. “Packaging people like fast-food items makes you forget there is a human on the other side of the app.”
This story by my colleague James Vincent has only the faintest connection to social media, but it’s still my favorite piece of the day. It chronicles how a cutting-edge team of bots lost to a team of professional humans at a tournament of Dota 2, an insanely complicated video game known as a MOBA. If, like me, you’re subjected to daily messages from the social platforms about how AI will fix everything, this piece expertly illuminates the benefits and limits of state-of-the-art AI techniques such as reinforcement learning. And it’s also a very breezy read about humans eking out a victory over machines.
Express Wi-Fi is a Facebook connectivity initiative that encourages local businesses to offer both free and paid high-speed internet access portals provided by Facebook’s partner carriers and ISPs. Today it announced a set of partnerships that will enable manufacturers to make hardware that is certified as compatible with Express Wi-Fi, Sarah Perez reports. The long-term game appears to be to put Facebook on the free tier of services offered by these businesses.
Oculus is giving launching “educational pilot programs” in Taiwan, Japan and Seattle, Mariella Moon reports, seeding Rift and Go headsets to libraries, museums, and schools.
Google rolls out the “Mini” its answer to Bitmoji, and they are … horrible! Ugly, washed-out, South Park-style avatars that if nothing else suggest the technology behind Snap’s Bitmoji product is more sophisticated than it appears.
“Chen Guangcheng, an activist who has been blind since childhood, was detained in 2005 for exposing forced sterilization of women to meet China’s one-child policy,” says the Post. “In 2012, he escaped from house arrest and was subsequently granted asylum in the United States.” Chen says Google should back off of its plans for China:
There is simply no way that Google can feign a neutral stance while developing a search platform designed to serve not the general public but a violent, coercive, authoritarian regime. Censorship, information blackouts and outright propaganda are prime tools in the CCP’s arsenal of control, as evidenced in incidents large and small, recent and historic. The ongoing crackdown on lawyers and human rights activists and the outrageous campaign against ethnic minorities in Xinjiang province — all well documented by numerous media outlets, NGOs, the United Nations and the U.S. government — are but two examples in a trove of evidence demonstrating the CCP’s intentions.
And then came news about Google’s work on a censored search engine (code-named “Dragonfly”). After my initial shock wore off, I found myself wondering what had occurred to cause the company to shed its defining principle in such a blatant fashion. Does Google really want to become a tool of the dictatorial communist regime? What about the millions of disappointed Chinese fans? Without their support, and without the company’s moral bearings, how would Google survive in China? Google — and all foreign companies — should remember: The vessel containing a dictatorship’s desire is boundless, never filled, never satisfied. You give an inch, and they will take a mile in irrational demands.
Former Reddit CEO Ellen Pao says de-platforming makes social networks better:
Companies can address harassment without hurting their platforms. Taking down shitty content works, and research supports it. When we took down unauthorized nude photos and revenge porn, nothing bad happened. The site continued to function, and all the other major sites followed. A few months later, we banned the five most harassing subreddits. And we saw right away that if we kept taking down the replacement sites, they would eventually disappear. University researchers who studied the impact of the ban report that it successfully shut down the content and changed bad behavior over time on the site—without making other sites worse.
Will Oremus casts a skeptical eye on tech giants’ plans to write a federal data privacy law to supersede California’s:
Voluntary standards aren’t the solution; they’re the problem with companies that largely have been allowed to regulate themselves since their inception. And if that’s what the technology industry has in mind, then what it’s really pushing for isn’t a privacy law at all. It’s more like a law against privacy laws—a bulwark against state legislation, or future federal legislation, that carries serious penalties for violations.
And finally ...
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is many things: corrupt former president of Iran, conspiracy theorist, and nuclear weapons enthusiast. But it’s not just nukes he loves — he also loves Twitter, and he released the following tweet today to the global town square:
Autocrats: they’re just like us!
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