Verifying the Alt-Right: The Importance of Designing for User Understanding
Designers, both while creating new features and while updating existing ones, often seek to define what those features should mean to users. In the context of social systems however, user understanding of a product’s features can easily become disjointed from a designer’s original intentions. The consequences when a designer or product team elects to ignore those divergent expectations either willfully or through ignorance can be quite serious.
In November of this year, Twitter made headlines when they suspended a number of accounts associated with the leadership of the alt-right movement and its sympathetic media outlets. Among the accounts suspended were those of white nationalist Richard Spencer as well as his think-tank, the National Policy Institute, and his publishing company, Washington Summit Publishers.
Asked for comment on the account removals, Twitter pointed to its rules, which “prohibit violent threats, harassment, hateful conduct, and multiple account abuse, and [assert that Twitter] will take action on accounts violating those policies.” Twitter’s co-founder and CEO Jack Dorsey was additionally quoted as saying that abuse “has no place on Twitter” and that he intends to stamp it out.
“Abuse is not part of civil discourse. It shuts down conversation and prevents us from understanding each other. Freedom of expression means little if we allow voices to be silenced because of fear of harassment if they speak up.”
While some, such as Heidi Beirich of the Southern Poverty Law Center, applauded the move, others said the bans accomplished nothing and members of the alt-right movement went as far as to describe the suspensions as corporate Stalinism. Regardless of whether not the suspensions were warranted — and I believe that they were — media outlets reacted with confusion when not even a month later, a group of alt-right influencers had their accounts not only reinstated, but reinstated with verified status.
Verified status, as defined in Twitter’s help center, means that Twitter has certified an account’s authenticity. It also adorns a user’s profile with a blue checkmark badge, the purposes of which is to,
“…let people know that an account of public interest is authentic. An account may be verified if it is determined to be an account of public interest. Typically this includes accounts maintained by users in music, acting, fashion, government, politics, religion, journalism, media, sports, business, and other key interest areas.”
The badge itself, which for years was difficult to obtain, was more widely made available in July of this year when Twitter opened up and streamlined the process for applying for verified status. As is often the case when attempting to define policy on a social platform, the language Twitter chose to describe the verification application process and the significance of the badge itself is vague and confusing. In August, Twitter user and Medium engineer Kelly Ellis wrote,
Even now months after these policy changes were implemented, confusion about the verification process remains rife to the point where it was called out explicitly in Anil Dash’s recent blog post, ‘A billion dollar gift for Twitter’.
There are two lenses through which one can examine the importance of Twitter verifying the account of an individual or organization that disseminates racist, homophobic, or otherwise inflammatory views.
First, from a technical perspective, Twitter algorithmically favors content from verified users. This means that content which originates from verified accounts is pushed on users at the exclusion of non-verified content. In the most extreme product manifestation of this policy, Twitter’s Engage app is literally built around a feed of engagement between yourself and verified users.
When you prioritize content from an elect group while at the same time making it harder for a diverse array of individuals to become part of that group, you create a serious problem. For Twitter, who has described their mission as being to, “give everyone the power to create and share ideas and information instantly without barriers,” this problem stands in contradiction to the very principles which Twitter has identified themselves as representing.
Second, and more importantly, regardless of how Twitter describes the meaning of a verified badge in their help-center, the reality of the badge is that is bestows legitimacy and prestige upon any account which it adorns. Following the reinstatement of Richard Spencer’s account, a number of users both supportive of and in opposition of his reinstatement took to Twitter to voice express their frustration or excitement at the move.
What is important to note here however is that, despite Twitter’s claim that a verified badge doesn’t represent an endorsement from Twitter itself, Twitter’s users do in fact treat the badge as an official endorsement of an individual or organization by Twitter. This is because Twitter established over a period of years the exclusiveness of being verified on their platform and because they have made specific changes to their products over time to favor verified content. In the minds of users, the badge represents legitimacy, importance, and prestige. Changing a few sentences in a help center article is not enough to change user perceptions and Twitter knows this.
Because these divergent views between Twitter and their users have been ignored for so long, there is no easy path forward that allows Twitter to modify or influence a user’s understanding with relation to verification that does not also create turbulence. While Twitter users will continue to associate verified users with legitimacy and importance (which itself is not a bad thing), individuals who hold racist and bigoted views will also continue to be verified. Thusly, without some realignment of expectations, Twitter could remain a platform where hate speech continues to be associated with an air of authority by some portion of its users.
At Quora, our design team has at times similarly struggled to interpret the ways our users think about our product and to understand how new features we ship are used. One of the primary ways through which we seek to clarify our understanding is by actually talking with our users on a consistent and ongoing basis. While those discussions can take the shape of something as formal as on-site user research, they can also range to something as informal as reaching out directly to a confused user and asking them to explain what might have led them to reach a certain belief or conclusion.
As designers, we must be acutely aware of the how the products we design are actually being used and understood by users, regardless of our original intentions. To ignore the realities of the product decisions we make is at best disingenuous, and at worst dangerous.