Are You A First Class User or Second Class Loser? Hidden Dangers of Social Media De-anonymization.

Hey friends. I’m going to wax geeky and talk about personal online security for Twitter users for a moment, because it’s important.

The following text is derived from a talk given by Shaula Evans, and has been lightly edited for clarity.

Twitter recently announced that everyone can get a blue verified checkmark if you “just” turn over some personal data. Turning over your personal details to Twitter is a Faustian bargain. (Correction: From what I’m reading today, sounds like the change is that everyone can apply for verification, but may not be accepted.)

Twitter wants your government ID in order to verify your account. THIS IS A BAD IDEA. Verified IDs cause two sets of problems.

Verified ID Problem #1: People naively assume removing anonymity solves trolling. It doesn’t.

Trump/Brexit have emboldened people to to stop hiding their bigotry. “Real name” policies provide the illusion of a solution, but it doesn’t work.

Know what DOES address online harassment?

1. Clear guidelines
2. Commitment to enforce them
3. Timely enforcement (Not twelve hours. Or two years.)

I say that speaking from experience. I build and consult on building healthy, inclusive online communities. It is possible, but it takes will and work. Verified ID’s aren’t a solution. They are window dressing. They are shuffling deck chairs.

Verified ID Problem #2: Verified IDs are dangerous for vulnerable people.

Here is a great write up from geekfeminism‘s wiki on who is harmed by real name policies. Read it.…

– You didn’t think about the harm real names can do because you’re not affected? Neither did Twitter. That’s why we need diverse teams.

– You didn’t think about the harm real names can do and you ARE someone who can be harmed? Twitter just endangered you.

Twitter has gamified the verification process (turn over your data to access more features like the big kids!) without disclosing risks. People who aren’t tech- or security minded are going to jump in (we can’t all be experts in everything) and GET HURT. This is awful.

The previous two verification problems create a third: a two-tiered user community.

People with enough social privilege to use verification safely become “first class” users with extra benefits and prestige. Vulnerable people become “second class”.

That is disgusting, offensive, and grotesque. That is terrible product design. That is myopic design from non-diverse teams. If you say “a real name policy doesn’t hurt me, I’ll do it”, you are now part of the further marginalization of vulnerable people on Twitter, too. I don’t know if you have a problem with getting special privileges by supporting systems that hurt others, but I do.

Two more points about specific problems with Twitter’s verification process.

1. Twitter wants us all to use profile and/or header photos that reflect “the person, the corporation’s branding, or the company’s branding.”

Let’s talk about what it’s like to use the Internet while perceived as anyone other than a white male. If you have a “female” avatar, you get more abuse. If you are a woman of color, it’s even worse. These are not state secrets. The data is out there. Anyone who works in tech and knows their arse from their elbow knows this stuff.

Twitter has effectively said: “We want credit for fixing abuse. So we’re going to encourage you to take steps to increase your abuse.”

2. Twitter wants to know your birth date.

Twitter then gives you fancy graphics on your birthday in return (gamification!). Know who else wants your birth date? Identity thieves.

Oh yeah, and doxxers. Your birth date is incredibly helpful to people who want to dox you, too.

Who gets doxed? Oddly enough, the list looks an awful lot like the list of people who are harmed by real name policies. You might want to think about that before you plug your birthday into a site that publicizes it. Or before you send a birthday wish a friend on social media.

In summary: Twitter’s new “soft” real names policy will hurt people, create a two-tiered community, and make trolling worse. Hurray!

Recommendations:

1. Don’t get verified.
If you have verified your account rashly and realize it may put you at risk, contact Twitter right away and get it undone, fast.

2. Don’t let your friends get verified.
If you have friends on Twitter who would be made vulnerable by ID verification, make sure they know the risks. Take care of each other.

3. Tell twitter why you are taking this course of action.

I know: it’s really hard to resist the gamified urge to get the coveted blue check, hard to be skeptical, hard to be a rational adult, hard to be objective, hard to perform due diligence, hard to think of others. So much easier to chase the dopamine rush of gratification.

There are bigger things in life than a blue checkmark, I promise you. Resist the urge, take care of yourself and each other, and stay safe.

P.S. We need to call out the tech press on this. The usual suspects are printing fawning regurgitation of Twitter press release, zero critique. Cutting/pasting press releases (or tweets) does not constitute journalism. We need a robust Fourth Estate more than ever. Pull up your socks.

P.P.S. Read about NYMWARS. No one learned. Deficient knowledge transfer in tech is a huge problem. It astounds me that Google went through the whole Nymwars thing going back to 2011 and the industry seems to have learned nothing. We really shouldn’t be working out these issues from scratch on every single platform.

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