Trading money for identity, fraud protection online makes for uneven playing field, says marketer
For regulars on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter, the blue checkmark is a familiar icon that confirms the user displaying it is verified in some way.
But some current and coming changes to the way those badges are awarded could affect how businesses and consumers interact online, social media observers say.
Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, recently announced it's offering verification to users who pay for the privilege. The trial markets for Meta Verified recently expanded from Australia and New Zealand and now include the United States.
The company has not indicated when Meta Verified is coming to Canada.
In recent years on social media, verification has meant your identity has been confirmed in some way — by an employer, a governmental authority or, most often, by the social platform itself.
There's been a shift in the verification process, to a model of paying for the badge, most notably by Twitter under the ownership of billionaire Elon Musk.
On first rollout, Musk publicly dismissed concerns that impostors would impersonate verified people or organizations by fooling readers with a paid blue checkmark. However, some companies had to deal with the fallout from impersonation or fake accounts that paid for verification.
For example, Eli Lilly's stock plunged after false promises to offer medication for free were posted in a tweet that had a verified, blue checkmark next to the account — but that tweet was not actually from the company.
Beginning early this month, Twitter users could no longer distinguish between accounts that have been verified because they were publicly important or notable in some way, versus accounts that paid to be labelled as genuine or verified.
Profiles on Twitter's website deliberately combine the two categories.
With Meta also moving toward paid blue checkmarks, social media educator Darian Kovacs believes it's an effort to get new revenue, while giving Instagram and Facebook users better access to customer service and address complaints the company's systems are slow to respond to impersonation and other problems.
"Meta has never had great customer service. And because of that, they are hoping people will pay to verify themselves," he said, calling the charge for online identity verification an "Elon Musk approach" to platforms.
"[Musk] bought his way into the social media world and now he's thinking, well, other people should be able to buy their way into coolness and verification in the same way he could buy his way into coolness and verification," said Kovacs.
Kovacs noted there have been problems with offering verification without a charge.
According to Kovacs, legitimate groups or persons couldn't get verification at all or experienced lengthy wait times for the type of blue checkmark they wanted.
"Both models aren't perfect. But the pay to play model, I think it takes away from this whole idea that the internet is for all, social media is for all, and we are all on an equal level playing field, because all of a sudden now there's another level. There's a pay to play model," said Kovacs, also a founding partner of Vancouver-based agency Jelly Digital Marketing.
According to Meta, charging for verification is part of the investment the company is making to increase support for users.
The company said validated subscribers to Meta Verified will receive a badge confirming they have been authenticated through government identification, and will get assistance from real people rather than automated or digital systems.
Meta said Facebook and Instagram users will continue to be able to report problems, including if they are being impersonated, but subscribers will have proactive and real-time monitoring for this type of problem.
Blake Spence of Calgary is among those who've had problems with Meta support.
Spence said his accounts have been regularly impersonated by an unknown fraudster.
After running a contest on his Instagram account, which he uses to promote LBGTQ+ events at businesses across Calgary, Spence noticed multiple accounts popping up and attempting to impersonate him in messages to other Instagram users.
"A lot of followers thought they won the contest and they were asked to fill out a form which included their name, their address, personal information, including their credit card numbers."
Spence pointed out he was not, and would never, be asking for that information simply to promote events or contests.
He said hundreds of people messaged him asking for their prizes. He notified Instagram through their reporting channels, and said other friends and followers did the same.
"They didn't do anything about it. It was reported numerous times and no action was taken."
While Spence said he is likely to pay for the verification service once it is available in Canada, he's not happy about it.
"It's unfortunate. I don't think we should have to pay for it."
As revenue has dropped at companies such as Twitter and Meta, the motivation for pay to play has been clear for some observers.
Meta, in particular, has reported a drop in profits and several consecutive periods of declining revenue. A new product, such as verification, could bring in more money.
However, social network researcher Siva Vaidhyanathan isn't entirely clear on Meta's plans.
While the company's revenues have been flattening, charging for verification may be more about reinforcing subscribers as a higher tier of customer for future Meta products, Vaidhyanathan, director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia, told CBC News
"The only thing I can suspect, and I'm only guessing here, is that the people who run matter would like to start rolling out a series of financial relationships with their prime users ... if you register your financial information with some new level of verification, then you've established yourself as essentially a financial partner or a prime member of the Facebook community."
Whether someone reading posts on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter can trust that someone with a blue checkmark is who they say they are will depend on the platform's management itself, according to Vaidhyanathan.
"If anyone is going to make paid verification actually work with some sort of trustworthiness, Meta is likely to be able to do it, especially through Instagram. Twitter will never be able to do it."
It does create this two-tier system, which is not really in the spirit of either Facebook or Instagram.- Siva Vaidhyanathan, University of Virginia
Vaidhyanathan said Meta is run by "professionals," in contrast to Twitter, which has let go of many employees who vetted users for verification.
But if paid checkmarks are offered for a low monthly price, without a team to engage in actual detailed verification, the researcher suspects both the social network and the public will be impacted negatively.
"It's going to hurt people's reputations. People are going to be accused of saying and tweeting things they never said. It's going to be chaos," said Vaidhyanathan.
Paid verification has a prime market — social media businesses, politicians and influencers.
"To have that extra fraud protection makes doing business, promoting yourself, being an influencer that much easier," said Vaidhyanathan, citing the example of a golden retriever popular on Instagram.
"She doesn't sell anything. She doesn't care to make any money. Nonetheless, every day her, mentions are filled with fake accounts. And this has been a phenomenon that has grown in the last year. So it's clearly a problem that they're not addressing [for unpaid accounts]."
Jelly Marketing's Kovacs said it's unclear how far Meta will push these subscriptions.
"They haven't made it a major piece of their promotion and marketing at the moment."
But one thing is clear — if paid verification becomes a permanent part of the social networking ecosystem, paying to play will be yet another substantial change.
"It does create this two-tier system, which is not really in the spirit of either Facebook or Instagram, but spirits are long gone in that world," said Vaidhyanathan.
Anis Heydari is a senior business reporter at CBC News. Prior to that, he was on the founding team of CBC Radio's "The Cost of Living" and has also reported for NPR's "The Indicator from Planet Money." He's lived and worked in Edmonton, Edinburgh, southwestern Ontario and Toronto, and is currently based in Calgary. Email him at email@example.com.
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