I finally dumped my Twitter blue tick in protest by changing my username last week. As I write this column, Twitter has again restored the blue tick. I am no longer part of the public clamour for Twitter’s blue-blooded blue-ticks because it engenders a new 21st century Apartheid in conversations.
For the uninitiated, the blue tick verification is a badge of honour Twitter gives to only some of the accounts, out of its several million users. Those lucky few and honoured accounts are known as verified accounts. We can call these blue tickers an exclusive club of Twitter users, who stand on a pedestal and oversee from their rarefied, verified lens large swathes of masses, ordinary teeming millions, who have to be shepherded with their wisdom and opinion.
If you know someone who can fetch blue ticks for others, then you can use that as a leverage and enhance your position in the society. In that sense, blue tick is a real possession, an accessory of arrival not just a virtual gimmick. I have even heard people saying they can arrange a blue tick for Rs 5 lakh.
It is such a sought-after thing on social media that Twitter officials are often pestered for it and the managing director of its India operations, Manish Maheshwari, had to announce on his Twitter bio that he has no power to give blue tick.
So, I also wished if I can get an entry into that prestigious, sought-after club of blue tick holders. Many others I knew applied with me for Twitter verification. Interestingly, Twitter, while verifying several accounts with fewer follower count, decided not to give me a blue tick. Twitter’s rationale was that its international team was against giving me that badge.
At the same time, my Twitter handle was restricted by the admins on a flimsy reason and an uproar started in the virtual world. Many hashtags related to this controversy trended. I discussed the issue of blue tick on Twitter, and several users called out the caste discrimination.
@TwitterIndia is discriminating Sc-St-OBC in verification & suspension of accounts. Despite huge uproar it hasn’t changed, is a matter of great worry for all of us. #casteistTwitter @verified @Twitter.
— Nitin Meshram (@nitinmeshram_) November 21, 2019
Request Twitter 2 end Casteism, Racism in the allotment of Blue Tick immediately. Come up wid transparency.Dear @Twitter this is 21st century, and there is no place for discrimination in the modern world. @jack @UNOCHA @UNICEF @UN @WHO @DalrympleWill #BlueTickisDiscriminatory
— Dr Anil Yadav JaiHind (@DrJaihind) November 25, 2019
— R Raman Vishewar (@Vishewar) November 20, 2019
Then, one fine morning, Twitter lifted all restrictions from my account and a blue badge popped up next to my name. Twitter never explained why it decided to verify my account.
This is how I got a blue tick badge.
But still, I decided to discard the blue tick trophy and, in order to do that, I changed my username. I do not know if anybody else in India has done it before, willingly.
So, what changed my view on the blue tick privilege?
There was a time I wanted to have one, but of late, there has been some rethink regarding this badge. These are some of the reasons for discarding my blue tick badge:
- Blue ticks are antithetical to internet equality: The promise of early internet was that it will democratise public conversation and give every user a level-playing field. I was one of the early users of internet. Those were the days of AOL and geocities.com sites, and I must admit that I observed with awe how almost anybody could have her or his own website or an account on a social media platform and say whatever she or he likes. That was the time when journalist Ann Cooper wrote a paper in Columbia Journalism Review on how everyone was a journalist now and the question was not ‘who is a journalist, but who is doing journalism’. For Cooper, anyone with an internet connection could do journalism. She saw that as ‘the tent getting bigger’. It is true that the tent has grown bigger over the years, but the promise of level-playing field has not been kept. Blue tick is one of the symptoms of that malice. It is a travesty to the equality principle because it changes the power dynamics in a conversation between a verified and a non-verified account.
- Blue ticks are hierarchical: This badge is intended to create a hierarchy in the social media as only a chosen few have it and the majority don’t. It is exactly how knowledge of Sanskrit created a caste hierarchy centuries ago. The stated purpose of blue tick badge is to verify the identity of the user. Going by that standard, it should be given to anyone who can prove her or his identity. The social media hierarchy that Twitter is creating segregates the users into two categories: some are opinion-shapers, while others are just followers. This is a model of two-step communication. It does not stop non-blue tick accounts from starting conversations, but it’s very difficult for them to get traction from other users. It’s almost impossible for these non-verified users to generate a critical momentum that is required to get their hashtags figured in the trend list. For a trend to reach the top, it’s a prerequisite that it first surfaces in the list.
- Blue ticks are arbitrary and discriminatory: Twitter has never clearly disclosed the method or the parameter for verifying an account. Since the process of giving blue ticks is opaque, it can cause doubts in the minds of many users regarding its fairness. In 2017, it announced that the verification process would be put on hold. But it has never really stopped verifying accounts. Since there is no set protocol or procedure for verification, social structures like caste, region and religion have started playing a role, even involuntarily. That is why SCs, STs, OBCs and even Muslims are demanding that their accounts should be verified.
RJD is against any kind of discrimination on the basis of caste, creed, faith and sex. We believe in equality and liberty. Twitter should #VerifyMuslimActivists and extend #BluetickforSCSTOBC activists and other deserving activists.
— Rashtriya Janata Dal (@RJDforIndia) November 12, 2019
Muslims,OBCs,SC & ST must raise voices against every inequality and discrimination being done by the fascists and their agents as without fighting we won’t get what we deserve.@TwitterIndia @verified must #VerifyMuslimActivists and provide #BluetickforSCSTOBC @Twitter
— Meeran Haider (@meeranhaiderr) November 13, 2019
- Blue ticks are creating ghettos: As most of the verified accounts tend to follow or retweet only other verified accounts, a bubble is being created where only blue tick accounts shape the conversations while others just follow them. Twitter gives an option to verified accounts to see notifications only from verified accounts. This creates an echo-chamber where these verified accounts hear only certain voices. It creates a sort of ‘Davos effect’ – the snow-capped Alps where the rich and the powerful meet and network with each other once a year. Twitter too is merely reproducing the existing power and social domination structures.
- Implications for democracy: Blue tick verification also has implications for a democracy like India because a lot of conversations are happening on social media and public opinion is also formed and shaped here. This is not a private company’s affair alone. It affects our public discourse and the kind of governments we form. We must think hard about this. We are a late entrant to the ongoing worldwide debate on the role of social media in democracy.
Dilip Mandal is the former managing editor of India Today Hindi magazine, and has authored books on media and sociology. Views are personal.