Social Identity and Elon’s Blue Check

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I’ve been thinking about Elon Musk’s social platform, Twitter, a lot lately. I wondered how one might keep the public square and identify the village idiots more readily. A new study in Nature’s Human Behavior looks at how knowing the identity of a writer alters our perceptions.

While all social media display an individual’s “name,” those names are often made up, the work of bots, and poorly verified – even with Elon’s new blue check! But those names are critical to their owners because they serve as the rallying point for their followers and trolls. Parenthetically, maintaining your followers, a marker of your “importance” or influence in social media, makes leaving Twitter or Facebook hard – the economic term is lock-in. [1]

Prior studies of computer-mediated social discourse indicate that personal identifiers enhance the development of trust and coordination – you follow and share the work of specifically named authors. The presence of their name, real or not, provides an anchor to build and maintain a relationship with the author and, more importantly, to “judge the reliability and validity of the information provided...” To return to my original metaphor, it helps you identify the village idiots and savants. When we feel comfortable with the opinions of authors, when we have trust in our relationship with them, we might also turn off our analytic minds (Type II for the intellectuals among us) and rely more on our intuitive, Type I thinking.

The Study

The researchers explored the impact of knowing an author’s identity on the reader's content evaluation. Over a year and a half, the researchers recorded “the responses of over 6,400 viewers on nearly 350,000 comments generated by 3,725 commenters.” In each instance, a piece of content was randomly assigned to being anonymous, where the author’s identity was unknown or where it was identified.

“These results imply people's opinions and engagement behaviors online are not just about—or even largely about—what someone is saying or posting online, but rather they are even more about who they are and what identity markers are associated with them.”

- Sinan Aral, PhD, study author and Professor of Marketing, MIT

Identity cues (those names) significantly affected our responses; the researchers estimated that up to two-thirds of our response was attributable to the author's identity.

“For some commenters, displaying their identity caused significant increases in the likelihood that viewers would up-vote and reply to their content. For others, identity cues had a significant negative effect, reducing up-votes, increasing down-votes, and decreasing reply rates.”

Those effects were the result of frequent, consistent, content production (“cultural capital”), and the subsequent development of a durable following or network (“social capital”)

It took longer to up or downvote content when the author’s identity was unknown. Knowing the author’s identity allow for intellectual shortcuts, the use of our Type I intuitive thinking, reducing the actual content to “gists,” “knowing” what the author felt without necessarily having to read all the words, and reducing the time “necessary” to generate an opinion.

A bottom line

Let’s begin with the researcher's conclusions.

“Taken together, our results paint a picture of identity cues as operating as social scaffolding within the community, providing implicit information to reviewers about a commenter’s recent activity, previous comment votes, and reciprocal voting patterns, which in turn change viewers’ evaluations of commenters’ content.”

In one sense, this is the basis for the algorithm-driven echo chambers within social media. In another, it is the digital version of identifying the village idiots and savants, at least when we see them. How to best verify identity digitally is a hurdle that might solve many of our concerns over censorship and unwanted speech; if we know who you really are, we have laws and precedence to hold you accountable for your speech.

Some of our newer legal thought further complicate digital verification as a technological issue. For example, as the study points out, “some countries, like Germany, have ruled such identification policies violate privacy laws.” Elon’s Blue Check is clearly not a solution, except for perhaps his cash flow. Maybe blockchain has a role in verifying and protecting the identity of Internet content providers. Given the recent setbacks to cyber currency, there may be any number of blockchain miners looking for work.

Bonus Treat

Tom Lehrer was a Harvard-trained mathematician and singer-songwriter who provided a great deal of parody in the 60s and 70s. You can find a sample of his work here. Here is a gentleman who may be Professor Lehrer's successor talking about the Internet. Spoiler alert: like actual Internet content, the singer uses “bad” words that some may find offensive.




[1] “Social networking had its problems—collecting friends instead of, well, being friendly with them, for example—but they were modest compared with what followed. Slowly and without fanfare, around the end of the aughts, social media took its place. …Instead of facilitating the modest use of existing connections—largely for offline life (to organize a birthday party, say)—social software turned those connections into a latent broadcast channel. All at once, billions of people saw themselves as celebrities, pundits, and tastemakers.” The Atlantic has a great piece on the distinction between social networks and social media, highly recommended as additional background.

Source: Identity effects in social media Nature Human Behavior DOI: 10.1038/s41562-022-01459-8