Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates

Twitter falling short on pledge to verify primary candidates
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Twitter has pledged to proactively verify new candidates' accounts this election cycle, but an analysis by The Hill shows that effort falling short.

Nearly 90 primary candidates in the five states holding congressional and gubernatorial primaries on Super Tuesday still have not received the company's coveted "blue check," with only a week until the vote.

Twitter in December promised it would attempt to level the playing field between little-known challengers and established incumbents by verifying all House, Senate or gubernatorial candidates who qualify for primaries in 2020.

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Twitter verification can be a vital asset to upstart political candidates seeking to oust established politicians, many of whom come into the race with significant social media followings and treasure troves of funding. Those who are verified receive a blue check mark on their profiles and receive better visibility on Twitter, a powerful network with 330 million users. 

The platform has verified nearly 1,000 contenders so far, but The Hill’s analysis of contests for next week shows that the platform has fallen well short of its promise.

In the 130 House, Senate and gubernatorial primaries scheduled for March 3 in Alabama, Arkansas, California, North Carolina and Texas, The Hill found 89 candidates on official ballots with Twitter accounts that are not verified. 

Of those candidates, 31 are Democrats and 55 are Republicans. The other three are from third parties with contested primaries.

“This has been a huge problem,” John Anthony Castro, a Republican running against Sen. John CornynJohn CornynFrustration builds as negotiators struggle to reach COVID-19 deal Chamber of Commerce endorses Ernst for reelection Mini-exodus of Trump officials from Commerce to lobby on semiconductors MORE (R-Texas), said in a phone interview. “They’re definitely not living up to their promise.” Castro said he has been regularly reaching out to Twitter about receiving a verification badge for months and has not received any reply. 

The accounts awaiting verification varied in their activity and number of followers. While some unverified candidates had thousands of followers and posted regularly, others had follower counts in the single digits. A handful of the accounts were personal and had not been used to promote their campaigns.

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In its original announcement, Twitter said it would proactively verify the account of every primary contender on the ballot.

Nancy Levine, a volunteer who has been tracking and flagging unverified primary challengers to Twitter and reporters, told The Hill that she was “surprised that they missed so many.”

“It begs the question of what their methodology is,” she added.

While Twitter has taken meaningful steps toward fulfilling its original pledge — it says it has verified nearly 1,000 accounts since announcing the policy — the process has been inconsistent and frustrating for many of the candidates. One of the unverified candidates described his efforts to communicate with Twitter as a “nightmare.” 

Frances Yasmeen Motiwalla, a progressive Democrat running in California against Rep. Jimmy GomezJimmy GomezCensus director says he learned of Trump citizenship move 'when it was posted on the web' Hispanic Caucus requests meeting with private detention center CEOs The Hill's Coronavirus Report: CDC predicts US death toll could reach 145,000 by July 11; Premier President Michael Alkire says more resiliency needed in health supply chain MORE (D), said she has reached out to Twitter to verify her active account with hundreds of followers multiple times, "with no response."

"The lack of transparency in this process has been extremely frustrating to me," Motiwalla said in an email to The Hill. "Given their influence in our political discourse, Twitter has a responsibility to treat all candidates fairly." 

  


Twitter says there is a lag time because it is working to ensure all of the candidates it's verifying are real.
 
"The process we implemented is rigorous in order to ensure that we accurately identify and verify candidates' legitimate Twitter accounts," a Twitter spokesperson said in a statement to The Hill.
 
Twitter has partnered with Ballotpedia, an online repository of election information, to proactively identify candidates to verify on a "rolling basis." Ballotpedia sends Twitter a list of on-ballot candidates to verify every week.  

Ballotpedia first checks to ensure the Twitter account is real and connected to the candidate, using official filings and lists, a spokesperson told The Hill. Then the Twitter team conducts its own investigation into the account’s legitimacy.

"Our worst-case scenario is that we verify someone who isn’t actually the candidate,” a Twitter spokesperson said, describing why there is sometimes a delay between receiving the Twitter account from Ballotpedia and doling out the blue check.

Twitter does not verify accounts that have never tweeted or that do not have profile pictures of the person's face, for example. These carve outs were not made public, meaning many candidates may not have known they had to change their profiles to be verified. Twitter says it contacts candidates to tell them to update their profiles if they want to be verified. 

But The Hill's analysis found dozens of active candidates with profile pictures who tweeted about their campaigns who remained unverified. Over the past several months, several candidates only received verification after launching public pressure campaigns or after journalists inquired about their status.

On Friday, Levine flagged to multiple outlets that Jeff Sites, a Democratic challenger to Ohio Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanThe 'pitcher of warm spit' — Veepstakes and the fate of Mike Pence Tucker Carlson calls Fauci a 'fraud' after tense hearing Overnight Health Care: Five takeaways from Fauci's testimony | CDC: Children might play 'important role' in spreading COVID-19 | GOP leader wants rapid testing at Capitol MORE (R), had not been verified. The Verge contacted Twitter and Sites was verified hours after. 

Five candidates in the races analyzed by The Hill were verified between Friday and Tuesday morning. These verifications underscore the ad hoc nature of the process: other candidates vying for the same nominations still do not have the promised blue check. 

Twitter announced its new verification system amid criticism that its policies were disadvantaging lesser-known political challengers, particularly its ban on political ads. After Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced an all-out ban on political ads in October, political strategists pointed out that social media campaigns helped catapult newcomers, such as progressive icon Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-Cortez,200 may be enough in Mitch McConnell's hometown of Louisville, but not in most US cities Democrats go big on diversity with new House recruits Progressives lost the battle for the Democratic Party's soul MORE (D-N.Y.), into the limelight. President TrumpDonald John TrumpOklahoma City Thunder players kneel during anthem despite threat from GOP state lawmaker Microsoft moving forward with talks to buy TikTok after conversation with Trump Controversial Trump nominee placed in senior role after nomination hearing canceled MORE himself has been referred to as the "Twitter President," using his account to connect with his more than 73 million followers and command news cycles. 

"Big tech companies clearly play a large role in our daily lives and our electoral process," Motiwalla from California said. 

Adia Winfrey is the only Democrat seeking her party's nomination to run against Rep. Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersHillicon Valley: Tech CEOs brace for House grilling | Senate GOP faces backlash over election funds | Twitter limits Trump Jr.'s account The Hill's Coronavirus Report: INOVIO R&D Chief Kate Broderick 'completely confident' world will develop a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine; GOP boxed in on virus negotiations The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Barr's showdown with House Democrats MORE (R-Ala.). Winfrey, who has made a name for herself as a "hip hop therapist," told The Hill that verified accounts have become an essential element of most political campaigns. Winfrey, who has more than 3,500 followers, has not been verified yet, though she’s already qualified for her district’s general election. 

“It does matter and it makes a difference,” Winfrey said. She hasn’t reached out to Twitter yet, but said she is expecting Twitter to verify her proactively. 

The verification policy was developed explicitly to help upstart candidates, but many of those missed say they’ve been left at greater risk of being impersonated.

“Nobody would know the difference right now if somebody created a fake account and misspelled ‘realjohnacastro,’ got the same picture and started posting outrageous things,” said Castro, a moderate candidate with almost 9,000 Twitter followers and a national presence.

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“Without that little icon … it feels like identity theft,” he said.

Candidates say verification is an important tool to connect with voters and establish much needed credibility online, particularly considering the increasingly vital role social media networks play in the electoral process.

"A verified account is seen as more reputable, official, and is taken more seriously," Motiwalla said. 

And the stakes are high in an online climate rife with misinformation. 

“Twitter has become an integral part of campaigns and people should be able to trust tweets they see coming from our candidates,” said Tom Taylor, a 2018 congressional candidate from Utah who was only verified after publicly criticizing Twitter. “Without that blue check mark, it makes it too easy for a bad actor to put words in a candidate's mouth and have people fall for it.”

Super Tuesday’s elections are only a small fraction of the state primaries which will be held over the next few months, making it likely there are hundreds more candidates that Twitter should verify in order to meet their original goal. 

“It was a good policy,” Levine said, “and a terrible execution.”

Emily DiSalvo contributed.