Verified does not mean trusted

A new study reveals that verified users on Twitter are sharing more deceptive information than ever

This article is part of a series of thinking examining modern media and our civic life including my new book For ALL the People coming Feb 23, 2021.

As more and more public conversation emerges to examine and explore our media systems and how they are serving and (too often) not serving society, we need to develop more precision in talking about what we’re talking about.

Yesterday, Axios published an article glossing a new study from German Marshall Fund about sharing content from deceptive websites that reveals that verified accounts on Twitter have shared more deceptive content than ever in 2020. The article concludes:

Verified accounts are supposed to help social media users seek out trustworthy information and know who they're hearing from. If verified users constantly share false information, it defeats the purpose and reinforces false narratives.

The problem with this conclusion is that verification is, in fact, a way of signaling and labeling the identity of users on Twitter, especially people likely to be impersonated. It is not meant as a signal or label for credibility of content or authority of the person on a topic. Not-anonymous may be the start of trust but obviously is far from any guarantee of accuracy or veracity. Identity and authoritativeness are fundamental attributes of our sources of information that lead to trust. Credibility is an attribute of the content itself that similarly contributes to building trust in the information we consume. Each of these concepts has been disrupted and undermined by new systems whose designs obscure distinguishability and force us as overwhelmed users to accept ineffective or outright misleading substitutes — most often proximity or confirmation — that mislead us and make us easy to manipulate.

What this study amplifies is that verification doesn’t mean trustworthy and that the verified are just as susceptible to mis and disinformation as the unverified. Additionally (and importantly), misinformation isn’t just about impersonation, and disinformation is not a victimless or abstract crime. People being deceived are building dangerous beliefs and taking dangerous action — violence that is dangerous to others and damage to faith in our institutions that is dangerous to our democracy.

Another important buried detail in this study that needs further exploration is that many traditionally mainstream information sources have become greater sources of deceptive information this year reflecting an increase in availability and the mainstreaming of disinformation. Substituting verification for trust is a mistake that arises from a lack of better shared markers for the other components of trust. Verification is an important and valuable feature that enables us to understand with whom we are engaging. We need other similarly valuable features meant to distinguish the other components of trust that we need to begin to rebuild productive discourse in our public sphere.

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