Some 2020 Candidates Struggle To Get Verified On Twitter
Last week, a brazen hack of some of Twitter’s most prominent accounts, including that of presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, exposed the vulnerability of the platform in advance of the upcoming November elections. A little more than three months before what are arguably the most important elections in the history of our country, Twitter said in a blog post:
“We’re embarrassed, we’re disappointed, and more than anything, we’re sorry. We know that we must work to regain your trust, and we will support all efforts to bring the perpetrators to justice.”
Politico reported last year that before the 2016 elections, “Russia’s manipulation of Twitter was far vaster than believed,’” saying, “the operators had the resources to create and manage a vast disinformation network.”
This week, Senator Mark Warner, vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said, “We can assure you the Russians and others are back and they’re trying to mess with our elections, and you add that with the COVID crisis and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.”
The recent Twitter hack underscored how nefarious actors can use the social media site to attack our democracy. The New York Times reported:
“But the nation is now getting a very public look at the impact of disinformation when trusted accounts of politicians and prominent Americans are hacked — with voters confused and more wary than ever of who is telling the truth, blue check or no blue check.”
It’s important to note Twitter has taken far more steps than its rival Facebook has to combat election interference. As part of its efforts to create confidence, this week Twitter announced it was banning 7,000 QAnon accounts, and limiting 150,000 others as part of a broad crackdown. But Axios identified 11 GOP QAnon candidates for Congress. Rantt Media has found that 10 of those 11 Republican QAnon candidates’ accounts are verified by Twitter.
On the matter of blue checkmarks, one of the most powerful Twitter initiatives to ensure election integrity is its candidate verification program. But complaints from candidates and their campaigns suggest that execution of Twitter’s candidate verification program needs some improvement.
A blue checkmark, denoting verification on candidates’ profiles, has been elusive. A number of candidates who are on the ballot for Congress in November were frustrated by long delays in getting Twitter to verify their accounts. Others who are on the ballot in the general election still don’t have their accounts verified, as of this writing.
In December last year, Twitter told Politico it would verify all accounts of primary candidates for U.S. Congress and state governor. “‘A significant factor in expanding verification to these races was to ensure a level playing field,’ Twitter spokesperson Nick Pacilio said in an email.”
Why is it important for political candidates to be verified by Twitter with a blue checkmark?
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Hassan Martini is Executive Director of No Dem Left Behind, a coalition of Democratic candidates running for Congress in rural, red districts. NDLB has been in the spotlight recently, as comedians Sarah Cooper and Chelsea Handler have headlined their virtual town halls.
This virtual town hall tonight was full in a couple of hours but if you missed the chance to register, it will be streamed live on @NDLB2020 tonight at 8pm ET! Follow @NDLB2020 NOW to make sure you don’t miss it! And yes Person Woman Man Camera TV coming soon… pic.twitter.com/9SKt7cIohC
— Sarah Cooper (@sarahcpr) July 23, 2020
Martini told Rantt Media in an email:
“Our candidates are running for Congress in districts across the country where people see progressivism as a threat to their way of life. Our candidates’ lives and the lives of their families have been threatened, so needless to say we take protecting their online presence very seriously. The blue checkmark might not mean a lot to the average person but for a candidate running for public office; it symbolizes that they are all in and protects them from being impersonated.”
Candidates’ campaigns echo the importance of Twitter verifying their accounts.
Gary Wegman is the Democratic candidate for U.S. Congress to represent Pennsylvania’s Ninth District. He is on the ballot in the November general election, according to his Ballotpedia page. As of this writing, Wegman’s Twitter account has not been verified. His campaign manager Mallie Prytherch told Rantt Media in an email:
“Twitter verification is often seen as a signifier of ‘status.’ In many cases, this may be the motivating factor for a person to become Twitter verified. However, there is a much more vital reason that Congressional candidates from major parties should be Twitter verified: to try and halt election interference.”
“We will never be able to quantify the extent of the damage caused by fake accounts in the 2016 election, but there is no doubt that similar interference will be attempted again this cycle. We need to be especially careful to avoid dis- and mis-information when providing political information to the general public. Verification will not only help voters find our account, but ensure that false accounts are not used to spread falsities.”
In February, CNN Business discovered that a high school student had created a fake candidate account. Twitter mistakenly verified the account and subsequently tightened its candidate verification process. In its reporting, CNN Business noted the impact verification has on actual candidates’ fundraising efforts.
Jannquell Peters, who was running in the Democratic primary in Georgia’s 13th Congressional District (but lost), told CNN Business her campaign had reached out to Twitter multiple times asking to verify her account. “Peters said that not being verified could affect whether people donate to her campaign.
“’When you’re asking for money online and you want to put forth the best effort you can when you are running a campaign, every little thing matters,’ said Peters, who [was] running against a longtime incumbent with a verified account.”
While Twitter has delayed verification of some candidates, the social media giant has removed some blue checkmarks, with ill effect, according to NDLB’s Martini who told Rantt:
“Our national spokesperson Richard Ojeda, a former candidate, and a nationwide political figure, had his checkmark removed suddenly. As soon his checkmark was removed dozens of fake profiles popped up and immediately started spamming accounts with requests for money. Without the blue checkmark, there is no way for Richard to prove that his account is the only legitimate one.”
Two congressional candidates in the NDLB coalition, and who are on the ballot in November, were frustrated by delays in Twitter’s candidate verification process. Both candidates are Black men running in rural, red districts in the South and were thwarted in their efforts to garner prompt verification by Twitter. Devin Pandy, the Dem candidate to represent Georgia’ Ninth District, and Allen Ellison, the candidate from Florida’s 17th District, enlisted my help to get their Twitter accounts verified.
I had been writing about Twitter’s candidate verification program starting last June 2019. As I wrote then for Rantt Media:
“As part of its effort to combat election interference, in advance of 2018 midterm elections, Twitter committed to verifying accounts of bona fide candidates. Politico reported last year:
‘Twitter will rely on the website Ballotpedia to identify the legitimate accounts of those who’ve qualified for the ballot.’
“Verified Twitter users are denoted by a blue check mark — public figures are ostensibly vetted by the company for their authenticity. Twitter suspended its public verification program in 2017 after backlash over its verification of white supremacist Jason Kessler, the organizer of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville where counterprotester Heather Heyer was killed.
“Although Twitter ‘paused’ its verification program for the general public, Bridget Coyne, senior manager for public policy at Twitter, said in a blog post, about the company’s program to verify candidates in advance of 2018 elections:
‘Providing the public with authentic, trustworthy information is crucial to the democratic process, and we are committed to furthering that goal through the tools we continue to build.’”
In February, I noticed that, despite the enormous positive potential impact of the program, some candidates’ accounts were not getting verified by Twitter. I tipped The Hill and The Verge, wondering how Twitter could improve the program. The Hill did a deep dive and reported:
“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.”
Last year, I started reaching out to Coyne by email and direct message on Twitter to offer my help with Twitter’s candidate verification program.Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:
Allen Ellison had been trying in vain to get Twitter to verify his account. He had garnered more than 117,000 votes, narrowly losing in the 2018 midterm elections, but still hadn’t been verified by Twitter. He is again on the ballot in the upcoming November general election.
On July 5th, I DM’d Coyne, requesting that Twitter verify Ellison’s account. She responded that day to my request: “If you can contact the candidate to email [email protected] directly that would be the best solution.”
Later that day, Ellison’s account was verified with a blue checkmark. He texted me the good news.
Coyne messaged me later in the day: “The account holder [Ellison] reached out via email. We were able to have our verification team process this account. Again, I cannot share personal user information but there were valid reasons why this was still in review.”
Ellison told Rantt Media this week, “No one gave an explanation as to why the verification process took so long,” and noted that his campaign had sent three emails to [email protected] prior to getting verified on July 5th.
The confusion surrounding Twitter’s candidate verification program, its requirements and processes, has been lamented by a number of candidates and their campaigns.
Earlier this month, Kael Weston, Democratic Party candidate for Utah’s Second District, escalated his request for Twitter for verification. He won the primary in March and is on the November ballot in the General Election.
A volunteer for Weston’s campaign had reached out to me, asking if I could help get his account verified. I tweeted, urging the campaign to email Twitter Gov at their publicly available email address that Coyne had provided: [email protected]
Weston’s campaign communications director, Julie Bartel, emailed Twitter Gov, requesting verification. She wrote:
“I’m writing to request Twitter verification for candidate Kael Weston, Democratic nominee for Utah’s 2nd Congressional district. His Ballotpedia survey was submitted back in April but he has not been verified as of yet.” She added, “It’s critical in a potentially high profile race such as ours that the candidates are on equal footing, and Rep Chris Stewart, the incumbent, has two verified accounts. Kael, a former state department official and author (worthy of verification in his own right) needs to be verified as well.”
I followed suit, requesting verification of Weston’s account, tagging Coyne and Monique Meche in tweets. Meche is Twitter’s Vice President of Global Public Policy, the company’s newly hired top employee in Washington, D.C., and one of the 16 most influential people shaping tech policy, according to Business Insider.
Weston’s account was finally verified by Twitter on July 17. He graciously thanked me for helping to get his account verified.
A public & very heartfelt thank you to @nancylevine for her advocacy & tireless efforts on behalf of a level playing field. We are☑️as of today & we owe that to Nancy, & to all of you for the likes & retweets. Thank you all. Let’s keep tweeting till all 2020 candidates are☑️
— Kael Weston (@KaelWeston) July 17, 2020
Some candidates and their campaign staffs have not been aware of the Twitter Gov email address, where they can send requests for account verification.
Bartel, Weston’s campaign comms director, told Rantt about stumbling upon the Twitter Gov contact email: “I had seen it listed in this doc, which we pulled while creating our crisis management plan. That email address is listed at the very bottom.”
Lauren Culbertson, listed on Linkedin as Head of U.S Federal Policy at Twitter, told Rantt Media in a Linkedin Message: “You can email [email protected] to inquire on the status of candidate labels.”
Culbertson also shared a link to a Twitter blog post by Coyne from December of last year, titled: “Helping identify 2020 US election candidates on Twitter.”
In it, Coyne wrote: “With just under a year until US Election Day and two months until the first votes are cast in the Iowa caucus, we’re launching two initiatives that will help people find original sources of information on Twitter by clearly identifying political candidates.”
Coyne updated her blog post on February 28 with additional information about how candidates can “receive a verified badge,” an additional label that takes verifying candidates’ accounts a step further.
But some candidates are yet to receive even the blue checkmark, a precursor to an election badge. Another Dem candidate for Congress whose account is yet to be verified is Dr. Carolyn Salter.
A campaign booster for Salter had reached out to me, asking if I could help the candidate’s account become verified. Salter is on the ballot in November to represent Texas’ Fifth District in Congress, per Ballotpedia. As of this writing, Salter’s Twitter account has not been verified.
Ellison, Pandy, and Weston have, with perseverance, garnered blue checkmarks. Accounts of Wegman and Salter remain unverified. All of these candidates are on the November ballot, according to Ballotpedia. None of their Twitter accounts show an “election badge” as of this writing.
To be fair, Twitter’s caution around verifying accounts of candidates is warranted. As CNN Business reported about the high school student who created a fake candidate account that Twitter verified:
“The fact that a teenager using next to no resources was able to quickly create a fake candidate in his free time and get it verified by Twitter raises questions about the company’s preparedness for handling how the 2020 elections will play out on its platform. A Twitter spokesperson recently told one publication, ‘Our worst-case scenario is that we verify someone who isn’t actually the candidate.’”
But verifying someone who isn’t a candidate is really one of two worst-case scenarios. The other is for actual congressional candidates not to get their accounts verified in a timely way. Wegman’s campaign manager Prytherch told Rantt Media:
“We have requested verification from Twitter’s office of governmental relations, after completing the Ballotpedia survey. We received a reply that stated ‘If you have completed the steps with Ballotpedia, it should be processed on a rolling basis from there.’ However, we completed the survey almost two months ago, so we don’t know the extent of the backlog in the system.”
CNN Business reported on Ballotpedia’s transfer of information to Twitter. Ballotpedia editor in chief “[Geoff] Pallay said Ballotpedia submits lists of candidates to Twitter once a week, which are used as part of Twitter’s verification process.”
A Twitter spokesperson told CNN Business in February: “We’ve put into place a rigorous process to ensure that, through our partnership with Ballotpedia, we accurately identify and verify candidates’ legitimate Twitter accounts. Sometimes, this thorough process can cause a short delay between when candidates qualify for the primary ballot and when candidates are verified.”
But what Twitter characterized as a “short delay” in getting verified can be a make-or-break momentum killer to candidates running for Congress. And requirements of Twitter’s “rigorous process” are often inscrutable to actual candidates. Some candidates have been further frustrated by Twitter’s lack of communication.
When asked whether anyone from Twitter had responded to verification requests, Kael Weston’s campaign comms director Bartel told Rantt: “Emphatic no. No one from Twitter ever responded either by email, through Ballotpedia, or on Twitter itself before the account was verified. They were a brick wall of silence.”
But it wasn’t for lack of trying. Bartel detailed the campaign’s effort to get verified in an email to Rantt:
“The campaign started on the path to verification way back in March, by following the steps listed on Twitter itself (Ballotpedia and linked Twitter account.) We followed up with Ballotpedia a couple of times after Kael won the nomination back in April and were assured we’d done everything needed for verification, it just took a couple weeks.
“After tweeting a dozen times or more and engaging in public Twitter conversations (tagging various Twitter people and handles) about the fact Kael still wasn’t verified (despite having won the nomination back in April) I tagged you, as did a couple of our followers (Jamie Carter, specifically.)
“Verification campaign on Twitter snowballed, we talked privately, and you suggested emailing them, which I did, using the address I already had.
“If that hadn’t worked, my next step was to start emailing every Twitter address I had handy, though I didn’t know how much success I’d have based on the fact that Twitter makes it appear that verification is a mysterious, one-way process that absolutely can’t be requested and must be conferred.
“While your help was incredibly effective and generously given, it should not be required. If there’s a verification program at all then they MUST apply it evenly if their intent is to level the playing field and create confidence in the political process.”
Make no mistake: the intention of Twitter’s candidate verification program, to bolster integrity of U.S. elections, is laudable. But to be as powerful as intended, the program’s execution needs some tweaking.
What is Twitter’s methodology for candidate verification going forward, and how can it be improved to support election integrity and prevent election interference? Only Twitter can answer that question. Everyone who is invested in saving our democracy stands ready to help.
No one from Twitter responded to Rantt Media’s requests for comment.
Candidates for U.S. Congress and state governor who are on the ballot in November and are seeking verification and/or election badges should send their requests to [email protected] with a link to the candidate’s completed Ballotpedia page.