Not much is known about Twitter's approach to verifying accounts
Clare writes for CorpComms Mag, follow her tweets here @ClareJHarrison
It seemed the ultimate PR coup to top off an already outstanding year for Twitter. Rupert Murdoch, chairman and chief executive of News Corporation, joined the social networking site on New Year's Eve while sailing in the Caribbean with an innocuous 'Have just. Read The Rational Optimist. Great book' tweet.
As the world's media analysed the arrival of @RupertMurdoch, he was soon seemingly joined by his wife Wendi Deng. She swiftly entered into friendly Twitter banter with her husband and other celebrities, including journalist Piers Morgan and comedian Ricky Gervais. Indeed, such was the tone of the banter that The Guardian ran an article under the headline: 'Wendi Deng flirts with Ricky Gervais after joining husband on Twitter.'
Sadly, like so many implausibly good tales, it turned out to be false. And The Guardian wasn't alone in falling for the ruse. The account appeared even to fool News Corp. A spokeswoman confirmed to reporters at both the BBC and The Guardian that the Deng account was real on Sunday, only to change her mind the following day.
So why was there such confusion? In part, it was due to the fact that the @Wendi_Deng account bore a blue tick to indicate that it had been officially verified by Twitter. The verification not only vexed mainstream news outlets, but also the man behind the fake Deng account. 'I was as [sic] surprised — and even a little alarmed - when I saw the verified tick appear on the profile,' he later tweeted, when confirming that the account was a spoof.
'I just couldn't believe they [Twitter] would have verified such a high profile account without checking it out, but I absolutely received no communication from Twitter to the email address I used to register,' the prankster later told The Guardian.
Twitter introduced verified accounts in 2009 in response to a flurry of bogus accounts claiming to belong to celebrities and politicians. However, an option for individuals to request a verified account has since been withdrawn.
Stuart Bruce, a communications consultant, explains: 'It appears that this is part of Twitter's moves to start generating revenues as it is still accepting requests for verification from 'partners or advertisers' who can request it via their account managers. But given that a recently leaked email revealed that the minimum spend for Twitter advertising is $15,000 then this puts it out of reach of many businesses.'
Bruce notes that Twitter now appears to manually verify high-profile accounts by identifying individuals on the basis of several factors, such as rapid increase in number of followers, social media buzz and mainstream media coverage. Twitter keeps its verification system under wraps to prevent people gaming the system.
'But from the false verification it appears to be doing so simply on the basis of media coverage. Because mainstream media had reported the account was real, Twitter verified it as such,' Bruce says.
Danny Whatmough, account director at technology PR firm EML Wildfire, believes Twitter's opacity is jeopardising the verification mark.
Whatmough adds: 'Twitter has never explained how the verification process works. While this is only one - albeit very public - mistake, Twitter needs to quickly rescue the credibility of the verification process by being as transparent as possible about how accounts are verified.'
Communications consultant and blogger Neville Hobson also thinks Twitter would benefit from being more open about its approach. 'In an age of increasing transparency, it seems bizarre to see one of the key services that shores up the social web acting so opaquely about a matter that's part of the fabric of the social web,' he says.
For those individuals who are not as high-profile as Deng, Twitter offers advice to legitimise accounts, such as linking a Twitter profile to an official website as a means of confirming an identity to followers.