Bad Checks: Twitter’s Identity Crisis Is Costing Users More Than Bitcoin

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Trust, but verify.

Borrowed from a Russian writer, it’s one of crypto’s most widely embraced slogans, though one that’s becoming even more relevant on social media, where battling factions bent on promoting the next great high-tech investment are now turning the very symbols meant to protect users against them.

Whether it’s an account impersonating the world’s largest exchange or its most widely known tech visionaries, no company or individual is too sacred for a simple takedown that’s spreading like wildfire, propelled by lax verification practices at name-brand social media giants.

Still, it’s perhaps “crypto Twitter” that’s bearing the brunt of the criticism.

Armed with a photo ID, scammers are successfully duping Twitter into giving them a “blue check mark” of authenticity so they can impersonate real individuals and entities, all in an effort to bilk users out of money.

Take “seifsbei,” a verified account associated with freelance film producer and director Seif Elsbei, which was hacked and then posed as the official account of the verge cryptocurrency. The hacker didn’t stop there, later posting messages as crypto exchange Bitfinex and ethereum creator Vitalik Buterin.

The verified account “Protafield” displayed similar bad behavior in early April, briefly changing its name and account details to impersonate crypto exchanges to specifically stage fake ether giveaways.

And these incidents display how crypto Twitter’s current mess isn’t likely to be saved merely by the blue check mark, or any other simple verification process.

“People at home see this as a stamp that Twitter sees this as a good account, which can be very subjective,” said Tim Pastoor, founder of the Netherlands-based digital identity startup 2way.io.

By vetting merely the identity behind the account, and not the intent, when issuing blue check marks, Twitter inadvertently makes scams even more dangerous, he continued.

Speaking to the overall cat-and-mouse game many crypto companies are having to play on Twitter, a Bitfinex representative described curbing such efforts as almost a full-time job.

A spokesperson told CoinDesk:

“We dedicate a lot of resources towards combating illegitimate Twitter accounts and educating our users on how to spot them. However, our impact on certain sites is limited.”

Fickle reputations

There are several patterns that complicate the trouble with crypto Twitter.

For one, scammers have quickly learned to use highly technical language to cloak misinformation in trusted terminology, said Nick Lucas, founder of the Los Angeles-based social media analysis startup CoinTrend. This means simple vocabulary lists and language analysis, processes Twitter and other social media sites use, won’t be enough to weed out scams, he said.

Yet, Pastoor pointed out that bots and spam accounts often promote tokens in packs, swarming to give each other good reputations and boost visibility, which could make it easier to spot systematic scams.

However, it remains a tricky endeavour, and so Pastoor recommends that Twitter take a page from traditional psychology to help combat the problem.

Most people trust their close friends more than acquaintances, so a layered approach to trust could offer some tools for filtering the noise. For example, a user may trust a coworker’s friend more than a complete stranger, but less than a family member. Just as Facebook lets people control which people they see posts from – friends only, select groups or the public – Twitter could give users more control over who shows up in their feeds.

“There are definitely going to have to be iterations,” Pastoor said. “I would probably recommend starting with allowing people to filter based on people that they already trust, and to maybe make more use of your second or third-degree networks.”

Twitter declined to comment on any topic related to these events or policy changes in general, but Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently admitted that the platform’s verification system is broken.

Changing hands

The issue is made even more confusing by the fact that accounts can change hands among owners, not only through hacks, but also simple handovers, and those new owners may have different motives.

For instance, what started much of the debates around Twitter’s policies was the suspension of the “@bitcoin” Twitter handle.

Before the bitcoin scaling debate came to a head last fall, with a significant contingent of enthusiasts splitting off the core bitcoin network to create bitcoin cash, the @bitcoin Twitter handle tweeted information in support of bitcoin. The account has been operated by many owners over the years, and the latest is an anonymous bitcoin cash fan.

As such, the account became highly controversial, tweeting out incendiary comments aimed at Bitcoin Core developers and several other leading figures in the cryptocurrency community who were on their side. Many Core developers saw this as misleading, since the handle was tweeting out things Bitcoin Core, which a majority of users and businesses still see as the “true” bitcoin, didn’t stand behind.

Because of the outrage, Twitter briefly suspended the account and then stripped it of its blue check mark (the account is active again but no longer verified).

Speaking to the debates that have plagued the leaderless tech community for some time, Sterlin Lujan, a bitcoin cash supporter and communications ambassador for Bitcoin.com, told CoinDesk:

“These social media networks should not allow handles to be censored or shut down arbitrarily, just because a bunch of people do not like it.”

And while Twitter has said the blue check mark does not imply its approval or endorsement, Lujan contends, “A person with a check mark has a stronger likelihood of appearing at the top of searches and feeds. What it boils down to is that Twitter verification processes need to be made more clear.”

Market influencers

While Twitter’s verification process is still uncertain, what remains clear is Twitter’s impact on the cryptocurrency markets.

Not only can scammers have a dire impact on user’s crypto holdings, but even those earnestly voicing their interest in a certain crypto project can cause price swings. For instance, Lucas has seen a clear correlation between tweets from influential Twitter accounts and market volatility.

“There’s basically a lot of influence on Twitter when John McAfee or someone mentions a specific coin,” Lucas said.

As an example, when McAfee tweeted about “burst,” a crypto token project focused on creating a “greener” mining process, on December 22, the price of the cryptocurrency quickly doubled.

A similar, albeit temporary, spike happened the previous week when McAfee tweeted about another crypto token project, Safe Exchange Coins. The day before McAfee’s tweet, the cryptocurrency was selling for roughly a penny each, but within 24 hours of the tweet, the price doubled and by the following week, the coin briefly sold for more than $0.06.

Some argue that when McAfee charges $105,000 per tweet, he’s basically advertising for companies for a fee. However, he told CoinDesk it’s not really advertising because he only promotes projects he truly believes in.

Twitter chatter doesn’t only drive prices up for new cryptocurrencies and crypto tokens, though. It can also have negative impacts as well.

For example, Lucas has noticed that a lot of Twitter feuds about bitcoin code changes and technical updates correlate to price dips.

“If everyone is talking negatively about something that is getting pushed into a core repo coin, that can also have an impact. If someone with a big following tweets something, it can cause a scare,” Lucas said, adding:

“There’s a lot more influence coming from specific accounts, unlike, say, Reddit, which pushes more topics to be talked about rather than creating influence.”

Twitter account on computer screen image via Shutterstock

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