Twitter is rushing to verify health experts

But how and why they’re verified remains a mystery.

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Twitter is making good on its promise to verify more health experts. Since the company said it would expand verification two weeks ago, more than 1,000 accounts have received the coveted blue checkmark, according to a company spokesperson. The accounts include doctors, academics, health officials and other experts whose Twitter presence have been increasingly important during the coronavirus pandemic.

Twitter has been attempting to fast-track verification for a wide swath of health experts as part of its efforts to fight the spread of conspiracy theories and those promoting “fake or ineffective treatments," related to COVID-19.

But despite the push, verification remains an opaque process. Twitter’s support page lists its verification program as “on hold,” which has been the case since 2017. And more recent guidance for health officials is somewhat vague.

The company said health experts who wish to become verified should ensure they have an official email address linked to their Twitter account and a detailed bio that links to the institution they represent (which, in turn, should have a link back to their Twitter account).

But once those steps have been completed, it’s not necessarily clear what comes next, or how health experts are meant to flag their accounts for verification. A company spokesperson said Twitter is relying in part on input from “global public health authorities” that work with its policy team who can help vouch for people that would benefit from verification, but there doesn’t appear to be a formalized way for individuals to make a request.

And though Twitter’s product lead Kayvon Beykpour previously said the company would “likely” be opening a public-facing form that would allow doctors and scientists to request verification without a middleman, such a form has yet to materialize. Twitter declined to comment on when, or if, a form would launch.

Even some health experts who have recently been verified aren’t sure how the process works. A researcher at a well-known medical school told Engadget she was verified several days after updating her account information, but she’s uncertain how her account came to Twitter’s attention. And her attempts to help an emergency room doctor do the same have so far been unsuccessful.

“I wish I knew,” she says. “I thought everyone got a checkmark if you put in your credentials.”

It only takes a quick scan of the replies to Twitter’s official tweets about its new verification efforts to find dozens of similarly confused doctors and scientists — some of whom have since been verified.

Verification has long been problematic for Twitter. The company officially “paused” public requests for verification in 2017 after it verified a white nationalist. CEO Jack Dorsey has said he would like to open verification to all users, but that option hasn’t materialized, and the company has continued to quietly verify thousands of new accounts in the years since. In the absence of a way to request the blue tick, this under-the-radar verification process has only been available to people who have access to Twitter employees who are able to vet requests.

For many healthcare professionals, Twitter has become an increasingly important tool as more people flock to the service to better understand the pandemic. “I don’t use this platform to self-promote, I use it mainly for raising awareness to critical issues,” says the researcher, who uses her account to communicate with doctors in other countries. Doctors around the country have also used Twitter to raise awareness about the lack of protective equipment and other critical supplies. Verification can help amplify those kinds of messages.

Moreover, studies suggest members of the public are more likely to trust doctors and researchers, compared with elected officials. More than two-thirds of Americans have a positive view of researchers and doctors, according to a recent survey by Pew Research.

And the fact that Twitter has been able to verify more than 1,000 healthcare experts in two weeks is an encouraging sign that the company is willing to get more of those voices in front of more users — even if its process for doing so is complicated.