Why Is Twitter Giving Disinformation Peddlers Its Seal of Approval?

Verified Twitter users often pride themselves on their blue checkmarks – which Twitter bestows as a sign of authenticity and authority. This symbol appearing next to someone’s name has become synonymous with the idea of a trusted source of information with legitimate influence.

Twitter was recently forced to pause, and only recently relaunched, this program following controversy over their verification of neo-Nazi Richard Spencer – who remains on the platform but has since been un-verified. Twitter claims that the checkmark is not a mark of endorsement by the platform, but a way to show that “an account of public interest is authentic,” since people with sizable online audiences may draw imitators. Twitter says that their checkmark system is not an endorsement, but this is how people interpret it. After years of controversy over this, it should be obvious to the platform that it’s seen as a sign of legitimacy and tacit approval. 

The blue checkmark poses a threat when it comes to election disinformation. Political officeholders and candidates also often receive verification checkmarks. Per Twitter, even candidates for office may receive verification “in certain countries” (including the U.S.) as long as they are “official candidates for state- or national-level public office.” 

The blue checkmark isn’t permanent — it can be removed for repeat violations of the rules, including violations of Twitter’s civic integrity policy, which prohibits misinformation about the integrity of our elections. Candidates with the checkmark can also be “actioned” (incur penalties) by the platform — one candidate was forced to delete a tweet last year telling Republicans to vote on Wednesday before she was let back into her account. This shows that even those with checkmarks can be actioned by the platform, but the examples are few and far between.

We believe Twitter’s civic integrity policy should be focused on minimizing the harm done by anti-democracy disinformation – the more people that see a lie, the more dangerous it is. But unfortunately, Twitter does the opposite – high-profile candidates and politicians with an audience of millions that trust them are mostly free to push disinformation meant to undermine trust in our elections. In fact, these profiles often face less scrutiny than ordinary users, because Twitter leaves posts that would otherwise be removed unmoderated claiming that they are “newsworthy” even if they are verifiably false.

Look no further than a candidate for Congress in Arizona with 63k followers that’s positioned himself at the center of Arizona’s sham ballot review, who says, “Everyone directly or indirectly…complicit in the rigging of the election has blood on their hands.” Or a verified candidate with 222k followers who says, “January 6th wasn’t against the United States it was for the United Sates. [sic] The Democrats are a threat to our constitution and freedom” (emphasis mine). All of these statements came from accounts with blue checkmarks.

While the candidates who have egregiously violated Twitter policies have been suspended (a few from this list of Qanon-supporting candidates have since been removed from the platform), Twitter has provided zero transparency into why they were removed or what the line is for platform removal. But unfortunately, the vast majority of these accounts – many bearing Twitter’s verification seal of approval, are still spreading lies meant to undermine our democracy. Twitter must take stronger action on election disinformation on the platform – and pay particular attention to how candidates are abusing their blue checkmark endorsement to push disinformation under the guise of an authoritative source.

Disinformation spreaders on the platform should be held to the same system of platform enforcement as other users — and lose their checkmark if in repeated violation of the rules, just as the policy states.

Editor’s Note: Handles are blurred to avoid amplification of election disinformation.

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