Please Don’t “Authenticate” Twitter Users
By now you surely know the news: Elon Musk has bought Twitter. The billionaire spent billions of dollars to acquire the social network and announced that his first steps would be to open-source the algorithm Twitter uses, which is a genuinely good thing, and to “authenticate” real users, supposedly to eliminate the platform’s very real bot problem. That second part is a huge misstep and today I want to discuss why that is.
Many people cheered on Musk’s intention because the recent increase in spam and misinformation has painted the concept of anonymity on the internet in a bad light. However, anonymity is not a bad thing, as Twitter itself has argued. Letting people share information and opinions anonymously opens the space for whistleblowers, OSINT operatives, journalists and activists to spread information that would otherwise be easily suppressed otherwise. Forcing people to give out their actual identity renders the work of many vital sources impossible. No leaks from oppressive states, bad workplaces and government organizations, unless the leaker is willing to share their real-life identity, which most won’t. Are we really going to trade reliable information from covert sources for the convenience of not having spam? Comfort over truth does not seem like a solid equation.
Now, one might take an optimistic route and assume that authentication wouldn’t involve explicitly tying your real-life identity to your Twitter account for all to see. Perhaps it’d just be a process where you upload identifying documents to Twitter, which is technically better. Except then we’d all have to worry about these documents leaking or what Twitter could do with them. Sharing identifying personal documents with any company just isn’t a good idea. Especially when that data leaking could land you in prison.
Besides, you could solve the bot problem with proper moderation and something as simple as requiring to pass a test on sign-up. The misinformation and people hiding behind fake names to spread hate, well, that’s a harder task but, once again, ensuring proper moderation that upholds everyone to the same standards would be much more effective than this ‘authentication’ idea. It’s simply a reactionary approach to a problem that requires more sophisticated methods.
Well What Then?
Like I said, better moderation, with more refined filters and more people actually reading reports, would be a good start. But the ultimate goal should be not to react to spam but to prevent it, which means investing more into making the sign-up process only available to humans. This doesn’t require knowing anyone’s identity, it should simply ask users to perform actions that bots can’t handle reliably.
If Elon Musk truly wants Twitter to be a better platform, regardless of whether he wants that for users’ sake or to sell it off later on, he needs to take long-term steps and impose meaningful structural changes. Turning one of the world’s biggest social media services into an entry-with-ID privacy nightmare is not the optimal way to go about it.