Meta’s paid verification plan will push more users to the margins
WHO GETS TO BE ‘VERIFIED’ BY META
Last Sunday, Meta quietly debuted “Meta Verified,” a pilot plan that will offer Facebook and Instagram users a bundle of services alongside the coveted blue checkmark indicating that you are the “real” you.
The plan promises “proactive account monitoring” to protect you against impersonation (which Meta already prohibits), “increased visibility and reach” and “access to a real person” for standard customer service issues — a tacit admission that in its nearly 20 years as a company, Meta has never guaranteed real customer service to any of its billions of users. Wanna get verified? Just hand over a monthly fee of $11.99 on desktop and $14.99 on mobile and send in a copy of your state-issued ID that matches the name on your account.
This is a corporatized, unsurprising turn for the company, no doubt facilitated by Twitter’s bungled moves in the same direction. If it takes hold, it will create a two-tiered system, like a class hierarchy, that will likely push marginalized voices on the platforms further to their edges or knock them off altogether.
Back in 2015, when I was at Global Voices, I wrote about Preetha, a writer and feminist in southern India who became the target of trolls. Things escalated when Preetha had her account suspended on the grounds that she had violated Facebook’s “real name” policy, which requires account holders to use the name that they carry in real life.
The trolls rapidly established a new page under her name and filled it with doctored images of her wearing provocative clothing, drinking alcohol and flirting with men who were not her husband — things that could bring a woman all kinds of trouble in her part of the world. Desperate to rectify the situation, Preetha was given little choice other than to send the company a photo of her state-issued ID.
Her account was reinstated shortly thereafter, but her official name online changed. Preetha had previously omitted her surname — an indicator of her social caste — but now it was there for all to see.
If Meta Verified takes off, the cost of being, and staying, “verified” will unquestionably create a barrier for important voices on the platform. And then, there’s the ID requirement. For years, advocates have pressed the company to reform its real-name policy to reflect the reality of the web and of public life. From people with caste names, to transgender people, to writers who use a pen name to avoid persecution, lots of people throughout human history have used names that don’t match their state-issued IDs. And some people with powerful voices don’t have an ID at all. Under a plan like this, people who are already marginalized will become more so, and their voices will be crowded out by the verified class.
This is exactly what experts predicted following the Musk takeover at Twitter. My former colleague Jan Rydzak, who has worked for years to hold Big Tech companies accountable for their human rights commitments, put it to me this way: “If we’ve tried to motivate a race to the top, now there’s a powerful actor, [Musk], who’s driving in the other direction,” he said. So here comes Meta in Musk’s wake. We’ll see who’s next.
Social media could have big effects on Nigeria’s elections coming up this Saturday. A BBC investigation last month found evidence that three of the country’s most influential political parties were offering online influencers huge sums of cash (up to $45,000), gifts and even government contracts in exchange for promoting false stories that would improve their odds of winning the February 25 election. And just this week, the Integrity Institute released a study showing that misinformation about the election is especially rampant on Twitter. We’ll see what it all amounts to early next week.
Ethiopians have been unable to access major social media sites and chat apps, including Telegram and Signal, in recent days due to public unrest over a politically-driven schism in the country’s Orthodox Church. The conflict was playing out in the backdrop of the African Union summit which convened in the capital Addis Ababa over the weekend. But this is nothing new for Ethiopians — protests in recent years have elicited blocks on social media and even full-on internet shutdowns for days at a time. In the northern Tigray region, where, until November, there was armed conflict, networks effectively went dark for more than two years.
Palantir’s software helped drive discriminatory “predictive” policing, according to Germany’s Constitutional Court. Last week, the German Society for Civil Rights won a case before the court, arguing that police in the state of Hesse were using Palantir to engage in predictive policing that was leading to systematic discrimination. The ruling could have implications for ongoing negotiations on the AI Act in the EU, which may or may not guard against police use of biased technologies, depending on how the negotiations play out.
This is important not only for Germany but for law enforcement agencies worldwide that use the software. We recently investigated how Honduran police used its network analysis and surveillance software to spy on journalists, activists and political opponents — and to prop up a narco state.
WHAT WE’RE READING
- Apple, Google, Meta and Microsoft represent four of the five top spenders on lobbying in the EU. And “the revolving door swings fast in Brussels,” writes European Artificial Intelligence Fund Director Catherine Miller for Alliance Magazine. This piece on the tech lobby in the EU is a must-read for anyone following tech regulation.
- A new series from Forbidden Stories tracks “companies that sell services to influence opinions, manipulate elections, destroy reputations and erase the truth.” Built to carry forward the work of Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh, who was assassinated in 2017, the Story Killers series follows the work of disinformation mercenaries from India to Saudi Arabia to Israel.
- Coverage of the massive earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria on February 6 has mostly focused on Turkey, owing partly to how difficult it is for journalists to work in Syria. In the absence of real reporting, we sometimes have little choice but to turn to Facebook. I recommend Syrian writer Marcelle Shehwaro’s piece on Medium about her experience following the destruction and relief efforts in Syria on the world’s most powerful social media site.