Anis Jaffer: Welcome to Tuesday Talks, a live discussion series where we bring truth and shed light across the brand identity and communications industry. I'm Anis Jaffer, Chief Product Officer at Numeracle, and I'll be hosting today's session with Rebekah Johnson, Founder and CEO of Numeracle.
Rebekah Johnson: Hey, Anis. Thanks for having me on Tuesday Talks. It's good to get together again.
Anis Jaffer: It's an interesting topic; we're going to be talking about Twitter. At face value, it may seem like a topic that's a bit outside of what we normally cover on the podcast. However, we believe it's pertinent to everything we do. It's all about identity, especially enterprise identity.
To set the stage, everyone should know that Elon Musk has taken over Twitter, and he's now running the show over there. It's fascinating to see and follow the tweets of what's happening over there, from employees getting fired one day to encoding sessions and getting Trump back on the platform. All kinds of things are happening there, and there's been nonstop news from Twitter.
One of the headlines announced they were going to start charging for blue checkmarks. Blue checkmarks, for those unfamiliar with them, are an identifier. It's literally a blue check that's on profiles for users and entities that have been verified as legal and that they exist. It's not for bots, parody accounts, or fake accounts.
It used to be that Twitter would verify these entities or individuals like politicians, celebrities, public figures, journalists, etc., and they would verify that they are indeed a real person and it's a real entity. It's a time-consuming process when you apply for it. The Twitter team would go through the application, and then eventually, it gets it. It was a status symbol to get a blue checkmark on Twitter.
Before Musk decided that Twitter should be charging for the blue checks, obviously, he knew it was a way for them to monetize it. They came up with giving blue checkmarks to anyone paying $8 per month for it. As soon as we got that news here, Rebekah, you pinged me, and you said this is crazy! How can they do this? It's going to be chaos!
What was your immediate reaction, and what triggered that?
Rebekah Johnson: My immediate reaction was, "iceberg ahead!" Iceberg, and nobody listens. I wanted to grab the popcorn because this is definitely a show to watch, just like you said. It was very easy to predict exactly what was going to happen. What was sad is that seemed like it wasn't all that predictable for Musk. I think he's a brilliant person; he's a very smart man. He obviously runs really good businesses, but when it comes to identity, you've got to know what you're doing when you mess around in that space. When you don't know what you don't know, it's a disaster. It is a complete and utter disaster.
What's interesting about this experience is with social media, when we've talked about trust, it really was more about information. It was about the content. Can I trust that that's real content? Can I trust that that doctor's analysis is truly a doctor's analysis? Can I trust that this information from this media outlet is truthful? We're not even talking about content. We're just talking about the actual account that's delivering whatever content. Content could be truthful, but now we can't even trust the account itself or who's behind it. Now there are two major problems that Twitter is trying to address, but don't let any good disaster go to waste.
For me, this has become the springboard for entity identity. This is our world, and this is what we live in, and this is what we talk about. It's nice that we sit in this little bubble and talk about entity identity all day long. But with what happened at Twitter, we now have, at the executive level within large organizations, the knowledge that our identity is important. Our identity needs to be protected. When someone is allowed to impersonate a brand on a platform that communicates information, that can have a real revenue impact, and that's the narrative that's changed with us.
My immediate reaction is that this isn't going to be good and that this is a really bad idea. He said all you need is a phone, a credit card, and $8 a month. And that's exactly how we get fraud on the voice channel. He literally took it all the way back to ground zero on this one now we have fraud, and it's going to be rampant.
Anis Jaffer: I think what enhanced it to the negative side was that people were used to trusting blue check marks because Twitter used to actually verify them. They verified enterprises, they verified celebrities, and individuals, so when there was a blue checkmark, you come to trust that profile as a valid profile. Opening it up for anybody to get a checkmark, that trust was broken very quickly. We saw a couple of examples that were outrageous.
For example, I think Eli Lilly had somebody sign up as Eli Lilly, and they tweeted that all vaccines would be available for free. Another one was Lockheed Martin. Somebody signed up as Lockheed Martin and got a blue check and tweeted they're not going to do business with Saudi Arabia or Israel or something like that. The next thing you know, they had a huge hit in their stock market, and they lost billions.
This is where the real-world impact is. There was an immediate effect on their share prices. And both Eli Lilly and Lockheed Martin have since announced that they're going to stay away from Twitter for the time being. They're pulling out all the ads they were posting, and since then, many enterprises have followed them and stated they're not going to be posting any ads on Twitter until they get some clarity on what's going on there.
Rebekah Johnson: What that is showing, especially for the vaccine example, was actually about insulin. Insulin costs are through the roof for patients. So this fake tweet saying it's going to be free, no, it's not, and they would never say that, unfortunately. What became very obvious is if some other account didn't present, as that company said, "insulin is free from Eli Lilly," nobody would believe it, and they wouldn't act on it. That's a content trust issue. Most people would catch on that this is a fake account, it would be obvious, and we'd be able to actually impersonate that account.
But when you have a company business name with the logo, and you have a blue checkmark, consumers should expect that they can trust that the platform that delivered that information, presented it as such, did some kind of verification to ensure that entity is who they say they are. I don't know, this kind of sounds familiar. We might be on to something, Anis.
Anis Jaffer: That brings us to why this is important. We've been talking about the blue checkmark or the verified checkmark on Twitter, but it translates out. There's a parallel here within the voice ecosystem with branded calling and presenting branded information with a verified check mark. The importance of having a checkmark, or having an identity and verifying it and presenting it the right way, carries a lot of weight.
As we have found with Twitter, companies are going to have their brands misused if there is no check and there is no verification of how it's presented. Establishing trust is one thing and then making sure that it is not broken is another element to this whole thing.
Rebekah Johnson: I want to give credit to conversations that we've had with the major wireless carriers. This is a topic that's always been important as the deliverer of communications to consumers and the entity that presents information to the consumer, whether it be a name or a logo, or a call intent, we live it and experience it. There is a very high bar for verified information, how that verified information is established, how it gets attached to the network, and how it's protected.
Even this experience has also caused me to step back a bit, and sometimes I get frustrated that they're asking for too much. But just because it takes a little bit of work, that shouldn't be a deterrent to doing what's right. Twitter has shown that when you compromise for the sake of revenue, it has a real negative impact on the verification. And I don't know how Twitter comes back.
Twitter can continue as a platform, but they definitely have lost a lot of its revenue dollars, and they've lost our trust. They might have to reinvent themselves as something else. They could be a platform for other purposes and reasons. I don't know that Twitter would be a platform for verified identities. They have to regain that trust lost by the subscribers.
Anis Jaffer: From Twitter's standpoint, since those issues happened, they have tried to pivot, and they have tried to change some things. For example, they announced that they would have an official label for certain entities like government organizations and media outlets. In addition to having a check mark, Twitter's product manager announced they would have a label that says "Official Account" on the profile. They also came back and said they are going to hold off on that.
But then last night, Musk Tweeted that the launch of the whole blue verified checkmark is going to be in a holding pattern until they are confident in stopping impersonation, which is exactly what we thought was going to happen even before this and the latest announcements came out. The whole reason why we scheduled this podcast on this particular topic was exactly because we knew that this was going to happen. Musk also commented that they would maybe use a different color check for organizations than individuals.
I do sense that they are learning from their mistakes, and they're probably going to pivot and come up with a better process for verification. It is going to be a paid model as well as something that needs to be verified. It could be a combination of the two, especially for organizations and maybe not so much for individual users. I think for enterprises and organizations, they could eventually have a model where you would have to go through a verification process, a paid account, or a combination of both. That's how I see them implementing this now for individual users.
I'm guessing here, but I think their tactic is if you make a paid account, that's going to prevent a lot of bots from faking or fooling the forms, preventing them from creating accounts and tweeting. It could prevent them from doing so because it'll increase a lot of costs if they don't pay.
The other aspect of this is how Musk also tweeted that Twitter is going to be a space for freedom of speech and not freedom of reach. Basically, what he is trying to say is you have to pay to get maximum reach. If you don't have a paid account, you may not get the audience that you want. That could also prevent some of the troll accounts from signing up for multiple bots and then tweeting negative messages. That's how he's justifying this whole process and what they're trying to do.
Coming back to your question on whether is Twitter going to be a place for verified identity, I don't think that it is, and I don't think it should be. They are still a space for social media and for individuals and enterprises to send out messages; it's a great tool for sending mass communications. If you are an enterprise, it's a great tool. But does identity live there? I personally don't think it should be there.
Rebekah Johnson: They're going to have to do something they have never done before. When we go back to look at what the process was before the purchase of blue checkmarks for $8 a month, they used to put it through three categories which are: authentic, notable, and active. Numeracle went through this process. They don't use the words "authentication" or "verification."
To be authentic, you just had to provide a website, an ID verification like a driver's license, and an email address. I do know that fraudulent actors can esteem those items to be notable. This is where Numeracle struggled: next, you needed to be popular. AKA, can we use your ads and make money off of you? That was a portion of the blue checkmark because they probably don't really want to give out blue checkmarks to anyone other than those they can use for marketing ads to a lot of followers.
Lastly, you just had to be an active account. So this older process left a lot of real viable entities and real individuals unable to get a blue checkmark. Then the switch got made to the new process, which only requires a credit card, a phone number, and $8 a month. They went from a really exclusive model that had nothing to do with identity to get a blue check mark to a model where anyone can get it. As long as you have a credit card and a phone number, you can say whatever you want.
It absolutely takes any concept of identity and verification and threw it on the floor. When you shared with me that Musk had tweeted about pausing on this, my response was, yes, because they now have to go into new territory they know absolutely nothing about. I say they know absolutely nothing about it because they fired everyone who may have actually known something about it.
We've been doing entity identity verification and exploring its complexities for five years now, and there's still more that we learn every day. It's not something that you can just pop up into overnight. While you say they won't be an identity platform, that's what they actually have to grapple with first.
They will either have to establish what verified identity looks like and then have to consider individuals versus businesses, because that's different data, and then decide what the policies are. Just because I could have an identity and I'm verified, does that qualify me to have a blue checkmark? What does that mean for their advertisers?
There are still a lot of questions. In order to put some trust back in the blue checkmark, Twitter has to figure out who they are.
Anis Jaffer: I think they are going to make a lot of changes and then eventually figure it out. Now, the advantage of the position that they have in the ecosystem also helps. There is no viable alternative to Twitter today. They're so far ahead in terms of not having any major direct competitors, so they can probably risk doing some of these things and then eventually learn how to get it right. As long as they don't have another player coming in and taking this over, I think they are probably going to experiment a little further and eventually figure out how this is going to shake out.
Rebekah Johnson: I want to talk about why we're even talking about Twitter and why it rolls over into the world of messaging/communications. Social media is just another communication channel. Communications occur via voice, text, email, and social media. Those are outlets through which a business, because we're going to focus on entities for a moment, wants to be able to reach its consumers. I'll say an "entity" because entities like hospitals want to be able to reach their patients.
When you have an entity or an organization that wants to communicate, they're going to use multiple forms of communication. Trust in the identity is critical down every single path. That's why with this Twitter situation, I've talked about it on the voice side and stated that the moment we get this verified identity process wrong one time, the whole thing is unraveled. I really was not expecting, nor did I ever predict, that the unraveling of the checkmark would actually come from a social media platform. I really wasn't expecting that, and it caught me off guard.
But it has its own lessons that we need to apply and double down on Know Your Customer (KYC). There's a reason why we're filing ex-partes with the FCC and bringing the attention all the way to the top because we're raising the red flag that what we just witnessed on the Twitter platform, and we can see occurring on the voice channel. Here's what's scary: the Twitter platform is owned by a single entity, it's got its own board, and it's controlled.
In communications, it's multiple individual companies, and it's a lot of businesses that keep that infrastructure up and running. If we allow bad actors into that infrastructure, it affects everybody in the ecosystem that's supporting it. It won't matter if a carrier declares you can trust the data that comes from them. It's not going to work that way. It means that the entire communication infrastructure has lost trust when we allow that in. That's what terrifies me.
Anis Jaffer: Twitter is more of a microblogging platform, so messages are asynchronous, especially from an enterprise perspective. You could have some real-time communications, but more often than not, it's asynchronous. You push a message, and then whoever is subscribed to it is going to get it.
In the case of voice communications, it's slightly different. Your communication is more real-time, and, having to push identity and information, you have to get that right the first time around. There's no making a mistake and coming back later on; it's very critical in that sense. This is a slight difference between how Twitter and voice communication is set up in general.
Rebekah Johnson: This is definitely going to drive potential regulations around these things. This has definitely gotten the attention of our lawmakers that perhaps there do need to be some controls, and there needs to be a standard. We have this in banking. There are definitely far more controls on the verification of entities that get access to storing funds and moving funds. That's a global adoption for how we put controls and protections in place. That's another thing that Numeracle will definitely be watching. But don't be surprised when something comes out of this.
Anis Jaffer: How do you see from our client's perspective? How do you see Numeracle helping them navigate this whole thing? Do you see any move for us in terms of how we help brands? Let's take Twitter as an example of social media as a communication channel.
Rebekah Johnson: For the enterprise, and we use the words brand and enterprise interchangeably, whatever image an organization is presenting publicly, that conversation, as I mentioned earlier, is happening at the C-level now. You have executives at organizations who realize that someone can impersonate their identity. Now there's awareness about it, and there are likely projects and initiatives taking off to address where else they may have this vulnerability where someone can impersonate their brand/identity.
That is a very real thing in communications, and it's called illegal spoofing. Spoofing allows for fraudulent brand impersonation. I know we've seen this a lot, and YouMail is the company that comes to mind that has solutions for identifying these actions based on communications traffic analysis, and they can figure out who's pretending to be you. Marriott had a huge case where they had this serious issue impacting their organization where other people were presenting as Marriott.
In the voice channel, I think these actions might be more heightened. Enterprises may have far more expectations that when their calls are signed, that they're signed as verified, that their identity is verified, and that no one else can mimic them. Especially with brand solutions, they have expectations that no one else can come in and pretend and pose to be them and get access to the presentation layer. I expect that from enterprises.
Anis Jaffer: Fair enough. I also think enterprises would need to have some way of managing their identities across all channels, and that's something that we can help with and work towards building a solution that addresses that. On Twitter, I think they would eventually move towards a protocol layer that could help them with all this.
There are a few things that Jack Dorsey, who is the Founder of Twitter, has mentioned before. He's a big proponent of what is called the app protocol, which is a way to federate identities across social media platforms by having a single app to act as your address so you can communicate with users across platforms. I think they would eventually move towards that, and maybe identity lies there, and it becomes part of that protocol, but that's something that's way out there in the future.
Between Musk and Dorsey, there have been some exchanges that came to light as part of the integration process that Twitter and Musk went through, where they talked about leveraging the protocol. They are also talking about a potential way for them to use blockchain to store and pass messages and even charge per message. As a user, you have an identity, you post a message on the blockchain, and then that triggers a pay-per-message type of service.
All of those things could eventually happen, but I think that's something to watch for, especially the protocol layer that they're talking about. So there's more to come on that as we see things move, and as always, we'll get that into our podcast for you.
Rebekah, do you have any closing thoughts on this particular topic?
Rebekah Johnson: I would like to put this into a category of what we've learned. We've definitely talked about identity more than what we're talking about on this podcast. Some key things are there should be absolutely no confusion when it comes to identity.
When verification is driven by monetization instead of truth and transparency, trust will crumble, and exploitation will ring. This cannot happen in the voice channel. I'm sounding the alarm.
Secondly, there is no compromise in the verification process. We have this experience at Numeracle. Some entities don't like having to get their identity verified because they think we should know who they are, but we cannot compromise on the verification process.
Third, entities should have control over which platforms present their information and who can leverage their brand. This is going to look different across multiple communication channels, but that fundamental belief should be there for all communication channels. For social media, let's be very clear, it is another communication channel like voice where trust now has to be returned.
Anis Jaffer: Thanks for that great summary, Rebekah. Thank you to everyone who joined today during this Thanksgiving week. Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.! We will be skipping the next session and closing out Season 2 on Tuesday, December 13th. It's been such a great season with some amazing experts and hosts, all of which we will be reviewing and looking back on in our season finale. We hope to see you there!