With over 100 million active users on Twitter, it can be a pain to verify which account is the real deal, and which are just impostors trying to pose as celebrities and notable people. Twitter has attempted to make sure identities of celebrities are not spoofed with their Verified Account feature, but is the process of verifying an identity really foolproof?
Twitter is not exactly for everyone, especially those who prefer the more traditional means of communication like email. For one, media mogul Rupert Murdoch -- who owns News Corp -- has publicly spoken against the Internet before, calling it a "place for porn, thievery and hackers" in a 2009 interview with Vanity Fair. Earlier this month, however, Murdoch set up a Twitter account, and has apparently started expressing unsolicited opinions on various matters. Another user started interacting with Murdoch's posts, from "Wendi Deng," which was apparently the name of Murdoch's wife.
Twitter had verified both accounts, with CEO Jack Dorsey even sending Murdoch a welcome note. News Corp even confirmed the validity of Deng's account, which sported the blue "Verified" tick, indicating that Twitter has verified the identity of the owner as an actual celebrity.
Fake Wendi Deng Murdoch interacts with Rupert Murdoch
However, the Wendi Deng account was later on discovered to have been a spoof account. What gives?
Has Twitter Verification Failed?
In his so-called coming-out tweet, the owner of the @wendi_deng account -- who turns out to be a man from the UK -- wondered why the wrong account had been verified, and how Twitter did not even communicate with him for verification.
You have to wonder ... why Twitter verified this account for a full day ... I was as surprised -- and even a little alarmed -- when I saw the Verified Tick appear on the profile."
The slip-up underscores the frailty of Twitter's verification system. Given the bustle of activity on the site, and the number of users who claim to be celebrities needing to protect their identities, does Twitter need to improve its verification methods, and should the microblogging service be more transparent with the process, as Matthew Ingram suggests at GigaOM?
Twitter's Verified Account system started in 2009 with the intent of protecting the identities and reputations of celebrities. The system involves adding a badge on the user's Twitter profile, which is a sign that the company has verified the identity of said user, as well as deemed the person notable enough to require verification. It seems, however, that like any secure system, this one is vulnerable to the human factor.
Just Human Error?
The Wendi Deng incident, though, provided some insights on how the system might be vulnerable to attacks or even simple slip-ups. Twitter has not disclosed any particulars on how the slip-up occurred, although sources cited by Kara Swisher say it was a simple "crime of punctuation" as she writes on All Things D. The wrong "Wendi Deng" had been verified, due to an underscore that was not intended to be there in the first place.
Sources say the @wendideng account had been opened earlier in 2011, and used mostly to promote a film Mrs. Murdoch had produced. When Twitter sought to verify Mr. Murdoch's identity, they also wanted to verify the wife's Twitter account. But miscommunication with Deng's assistant attributed to the holiday rush added an underscore that shouldn't have been there, thus leading to the error, with @wendi_deng being verified instead.
Unlike other social networks, Twitter does not require users to display their real names, and users will have to take claims of identity with a grain of salt. But when Twitter's own identity verification system apparently fails, should we worry about whom we follow? Or is this just a one-off case that's not likely to happen in the future?