Verified Social Accounts Are More Important Than Ever

Facebook verification is now available for states, cities and counties. Here’s why you need it.

by Luke Stowe, special to Government Technology / May 22, 2015
The Evanston, Ill., Facebook page has been officially verified, as shown by the "blue checkmark." Facebook

Facebook recently introduced a path for state and local government agencies to attain the coveted verified status recognized by the white-and-blue checkmark. Verification has historically been reserved for celebrities, sports teams and federal government entities like the White House.  

Twitter also recently moved away from an esoteric email process to a simple online form for government agencies looking for verification status. Similar page verification options also exist for other social platforms such as Google Plus and Pinterest.

Dozens of agencies have secured verified status on Facebook in recent weeks and many have proudly shared their new profile look on social media. These new verification options are a win for both the agencies and their citizens.

Verified social accounts are arguably more important than ever. Not only are there now thousands of government agency pages, but impersonation and parody accounts are common in the #SocialGov space.  

While Baltimore struggled to contain violence in the streets in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, the city also struggled on the digital front. The Baltimore Sun reported that as many as 100 fake government accounts sprang up during the riots. Many of these accounts created confusion and may even have contributed to the prolonged period of unrest that gripped the city.

Many of the imposter accounts appear to have originated from so-called hacktivists from countries as far away as Russia and China. These accounts attempted to impersonate the Baltimore police, the mayor, the governor and the Maryland National Guard. The messages often contained photos and images of violence and looting. The problem was, in several cases, the photos weren’t even from Baltimore and some were a few years old.

There were similar issues during Hurricane Sandy in 2012 with impersonation accounts and social media users attempting to create chaos from afar. Government agencies should take advantage of these new easy verification options now so they aren’t scrambling in the aftermath of an incident to get their various accounts authenticated.

Verification also helps residents when they go searching for their governments’ accounts on social platforms. Let’s use Roanoke, Va., as an example. A quick Facebook search for Roanoke offers two prominent results. One is the generic place page frequently seen on Facebook, which is not the official city account and often confuses citizens. The second is the newly verified City of Roanoke page with its blue checkmark, offering a quick way for users to ensure they’ve found the right account.

Verified accounts are also helpful for agencies when they comment on posts. The verified account comments stand out among others in lengthy and sometimes contentious conversation threads. Residents will frequently scan comments, and those with the blue checkmark are more likely to be read, replied to and liked.

While verified accounts are an important step, there’s more work to be done. Twitter CEO Dick Costolo has acknowledged that Twitter needs to do more to combat threats of violence, trolls and online harassment occurring on the platform. For now, government agencies can visit the Twitter Help Center and report an account if they’re experiencing impersonation issues.  

Parody accounts, however, are permitted by Twitter and can sometimes be embraced by the politicians they target. Perhaps the most famous government example was a profanity-laced Twitter account named for then-Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel. Emanuel took the parody in stride and even donated $5,000 to charity once the anonymous account holder came forward.

Regardless of whether impersonators aim for humor or something more sinister, government agencies should secure verification now to avoid confusion during a critical emergency management incident and improve the overall citizen experience on social media.