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By certifying celebrities, Twitter has gotten itself into the trust business. But trust requires process. (Jason Logan for The Globe and Mail)
By certifying celebrities, Twitter has gotten itself into the trust business. But trust requires process. (Jason Logan for The Globe and Mail)

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It’s nice having a direct line to Rupert Murdoch, who’s appeared on Twitter of late. Previously, knowing Rupert Murdoch’s mind required some divination, since we could only see it through the filter of a multibillion-dollar news organization, which presumably reflects his views, but only once it’s been through several layers of management, editing, production and assorted voice mail. But now he’s on Twitter, and we can see the big man’s thoughts directly.

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“Santorum right. America a big, good society capable of anything. Not libertarian!” Rupert Murdoch says.

“International Court of Justice. Will never succeed. See today's Journal book reviews,” Rupert Murdoch says.

“Obama out to lunch!” says Rupert Murdoch, sounding increasingly like your dad yelling at the television, except he owns the television and everything on it. It’s actually endearing: He’s got a distinct voice and a punchy delivery. By any standard of corporate communication, it’s a good read.

Now, here’s the thing. How do we know it’s really Rupert Murdoch? Some evidence is circumstantial: He puts two spaces between his sentences, which is not surefire proof of an octogenarian, but certainly points in that direction. Moreover, he tweets in the clipped style of one whose early media training mostly involved telegrams.

But if that’s not enough, there’s one more bit of proof: A blue checkmark appears on his Twitter page, indicating that the Internet company has authenticated him as the real thing.

If only everyone else was so lucky. At about the same time as Mr. Murdoch appeared on the service, an account appeared in the name of his wife, Wendi Deng. It was filled with vacuous chatter; none too offensive, but none too flattering, either. It was given a checkmark of authenticity, and so, in effect, it became her actual voice. Her statements were credulously reported around the world as if spoken into a microphone.

It wasn’t until a day later that the truth came out: The Wendi Deng account was a hoax, the tweets were written by a male Londoner, and Twitter had fluffed the process of verifying the account. The company has remained tight-lipped about what happened, but tech blogger Kara Swisher reported that the error that launched a thousand corrections came down to a simple typo – someone at Twitter authenticated a fake account called @wendi_deng instead of a real one called @wendideng (the real Wendi has since quit Twitter).

You’d think we’d have the business of real names on the Internet sorted by now, but no. The argument over whether it’s better to use real names online has been going in circles for decades. (Team real names: “People are horrible when they’re anonymous!” Team anonymity: “But think of the dissidents!”) But let’s talk about verified identity where it really matters: celebrity prattle.

For better or for worse, Twitter has staked a claim on celebrity prattle as one of its selling points. It offers stars an easy, off-the-cuff way of reaching out to large followings, and it gives fans a correspondingly unfiltered glimpse into their idols’ psyches. Justin Bieber tweets to a nation of foaming, lurching tweens. A rapper is scarcely a rapper without a Twitter account. From time to time, Kanye West avails himself of the opportunity to come unhinged on the service, which always draws a crowd.

So Twitter has a vested interest in establishing the bona fides of celebrities, especially since the parts of the Internet not strewn with Bieber fever victims have been colonized by aspiring celebrity parodists.

Part of the reason that Twitter isn’t saying much about what happened in the Deng case is that, by all appearances, its verification process is completely ad hoc. It used to have a program by which blue checkmarks were dispensed to qualifying individuals, but it was phased out, leaving verifications in an arbitrary limbo. It’s unclear what it takes to qualify these days, though apparently being Rupert Murdoch will do.

Verifying celebrity identity is a double-edged sword that it has more power to do harm than good. A false positive can do more harm than a lack of accreditation. When Twitter lent its stamp of approval to the wrong Wendi Deng, the prankster behind the fake account was given carte blanche to speak in her name, and the global media, largely satisfied by Twitter’s approbation, took the service at its word.

One of the lessons here is that Twitter has become an important and integrated part of the world’s news-gathering operation. By staying the business of authenticating celebrities, it’s taking on a lot of responsibility for what’s said. A scheme in which a few users are deemed famous enough to be certified, but a hundred-million-odd other voices aren’t, is a strange way to run a global network. Where is the line? If a starlet with one million followers gets a checkmark, but a starlet with 900,000 doesn’t, does that mean that the lesser starlet’s feed is untrustworthy? Does my own piddling little Twitter account speak for me, despite the lack of a checkmark? How can Twitter verify that some people are who they say they are without verifying everybody?

By certifying celebrities, Twitter has gotten itself into the trust business. But trust requires process, and until some process becomes apparent, the old aphorism about anonymity will hold: On the Internet, no one knows you’re an Australian billionaire.

 
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