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Meanwhile, on the Internet
Tribune Reporters
'Meanwhile' is a collaborative blog about all the crazy stuff on the Internet. Here, reporters from various Tribune desks tell you what you (almost) need to know about topics ranging from technology to YouTube sensations. Contributors: Michael McFall, Dave Newlin, Matt Piper, Brennan Smith, Erin Alberty. Edited by Sheena McFarland.

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Colbert Report tweet mixup shows Twitter ‘verification’ is completely meaningless

Last night, Stephen Colbert caused an uproar with a racist tweet. The tweet read "I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever."

The tweet was later deleted, but BuzzFeed screen captured it and reported on some of the resulting outrage.

So, pretty bad, right?

Except that it wasn’t actually Colbert who sent the tweet. Or even his team. Or maybe even anyone he knows. As he later explained, he uses a completely different account:

Someone running the offending account later explained that it’s actually run by Comedy Central, which airs Colbert’s show.

As of the time I was writing this Thursday night, it was still unclear what exactly happened and what kind of fallout there would be.

But whatever the problem was, the controversy exposed the meaninglessness of Twitter’s "verified accounts."

These special kind of accounts include a blue checkmark next to the user’s name. They’re supposed to prove that the person using the account is who she says she is. In this case, however, both Colbert’s personal account and the offending Comedy Central account are "verified." Technically, maybe that’s right; one is verified as Colbert himself, and the other is "verified" as some ambiguous show account.

But I wonder how many of the 1.01 million people who follow @ColbertReport realize that it’s not actually Colbert. The account uses the name of his show and his picture. At least last night, it didn’t have any disclaimer in the bio about not being connected to the man himself. If you’re active on Twitter you’d see the difference, but if you’re a casual user like most people and just see a tweet here and there, @ColbertReport could sure seem like the real deal.

To that point, many of the people who expressed outrage did not immediately seem to realize that @ColbertReport was not Stephen Colbert.

In any case, fake Twitter accounts pose as celebrities all the time, but significantly, those fake accounts are not verified.

The Colbert incident shows thus shows us two things: A) that people trust verified accounts, and B) that they shouldn’t, or at least they shouldn’t take them at face value. After all they may be "verified" as something completely unexpected, offering the appearance of certainty when really there is none.

— Jim Dalrymple II

Twitter: @jimmycdii

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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