Twitter Tips the Scale Toward Incumbents by Refusing to Verify Primary Challengers

Even starring in a Netflix documentary won’t get you that blue check mark, these days.

Illustration: Adam Maida for The Intercept

Twitter is refusing to verify the accounts of primary challengers running for Congress in 2020, a policy that many candidates say is hurting their campaigns and helping keep the same handful of politicians in power.

Cori Bush, a community activist who challenged 10-term incumbent William Lacy Clay in the St. Louis-based district last cycle, still hasn’t been verified on Twitter. She’s running in Missouri’s 1st Congressional District again in 2020, and even starred in a documentary about her first attempt. “Knock Down the House,” the Rachel Lears film Netflix bought for a record $10 million, followed the insurgent campaigns of Bush, Amy Vilela, Paula Jean Swearengin, and now-Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Despite this, Bush hasn’t been verified. Swearengin, an activist running for Senate again in West Virginia, hasn’t been verified either.

In an email sent last May, Twitter’s Government & Elections team told Bush that while they develop a new verification program, their support team is actively reaching out to candidates after each state’s primary elections “to verify those who qualify to appear on the ballot for the general elections in November.” Twitter paused its general verification program in 2017, after facing backlash for giving a blue check mark to Jason Kessler: the organizer of the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the death of Heather Heyer.

The social media platform won’t make exceptions for a number of credible primary candidates, including ones who have large online followings and grassroots support, massive fundraising hauls, extensive news coverage, and in Bush’s case, a leading role in a Netflix documentary. Instead, Twitter’s government relations team has been telling candidates seeking verification that they won’t be giving any new contenders a blue check mark until after they win the state’s primary. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

Verification can increase a candidate’s visibility and reach online among journalists, ordinary voters, and potential volunteers and donors. A lively social media presence alone certainly won’t win an election, but the ability to look credible online is an undeniable material advantage. And, for aspiring politicians targeted by trolls, being verified means their accounts are more protected.

Lindsey Boylan, a former New York state official challenging Judiciary Committee Chair Jerry Nadler from the left, has seen her campaign covered everywhere, from the New York Times and Politico to Teen Vogue and Business Insider. Still, she’s had several unsuccessful attempts to get verified. “It’s not going to make or break our race — we’re running to win — but the reality is having verification really levels the playing field,” Boylan said. In practice, she argued, the verification policy ends up “artificially supporting and propping up incumbents” while hurting progressives.

“It’s not going to make or break our race — we’re running to win — but the reality is having verification really levels the playing field.”

As The Intercept reported on Wednesday, progressive challengers to conservative House Democrats have seen remarkable fundraising quarters. Marie Newman, who is once again challenging Rep. Dan Lipinski in Illinois’s 3rd Congressional District, raised $350,000 in the most recent fundraising period. Morgan Harper, running against Rep. Joyce Beatty in Ohio’s 3rd Congressional District, raised $323,000 during the first quarter. Jessica Cisneros, facing Rep. Henry Cuellar in Texas’s 28th District, raised $310,000. And Mondaire Jones, who’s running to succeed retiring Rep. Nita Lowey, raised more than $218,000. None of them have been Twitter verified.

Still, the platform has verified countless candidates with relatively small online followings. Jason Fisher, for example, is a former candidate for Alabama state Senate and the 2017 special primary election for U.S. Senate. He has less than 2,500 followers and has a blue check mark. Robert Kennedy Jr., another former Alabama candidate who has a famous name despite local media at one point writing that no one knows who he is, is verified with less than 3,000 followers. Neither candidate responded to a request for comment by press time.

Jose Caballero, one of the Democrats in the race to succeed retiring Rep. Susan Davis in California’s 53rd Congressional District, has also been denied verification. One of his opponents, Sara Jacobs, meanwhile, is verified. They both have fewer than 10,000 followers. In emails between Caballero and Twitter’s government relations team, the congressional hopeful asks why Briana Urbina, one of two candidates taking on House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer in Maryland, has gotten verified before the primary. Caballero said Twitter stopped responding.

Urbina told The Intercept her account was verified less than two months ago, after a staffer reached out to Twitter Ads about being considered. They provided FEC filing reports and their campaign website, and other things.

Mckayla Wilkes, Hoyer’s other primary challenger, is unverified despite having over 16,000 more Twitter followers than Urbina. “Twitter also seems to make exceptions to their own policy, in opaque and arbitrary ways,” she said in a statement. “A clearer and more inclusive process would better serve our democracy.”

Joshua Collins, a 25-year-old truck driver and democratic socialist running for Congress in Washington, believes the platform’s verification policy is “unethical and amounts to nothing less than election interference.” Collins said he first tried to get verified when he had around 20,000 followers, because there were fake accounts with his name and profile picture popping up every few days. “I have had to report and get about 15 different accounts banned for impersonating me, and I’m afraid there is some change voters will see something said by a fake account and think it’s me,” he told The Intercept in a Twitter DM.

“Right wingers will, every once in a while, just mass report one of my Tweets, and then I’ll have to delete the tweet and be banned for 12 hours,” he added. “They can successfully do this with almost any Tweet, but if I were listed as a verified politician, the system wouldn’t automatically ban me.”

Ocasio-Cortez, who stunned the political world when she toppled incumbent Joe Crowley last year, told The Intercept that verification “definitely did” help her campaign get taken more seriously. Instagram and Facebook refused to verify her until after she won her primary, despite having articles written about her and several appearances on the online news show The Young Turks, she said, “It was a real pain in the butt.” She added that, in the last election cycle, Instagram verified Suraj Patel, who’s challenging New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney again, way before the primary while refusing to verify her.

As for the Twitter verification, “I think I got it early — around 3,000 followers — but it was before the whole Twitter-verifying-neo-Nazi scandal,” she said. “So the verification process was different.” There was a formal application that asked her to link to a number of legitimate news articles about her, along with an essay question about why verification was necessary.

“Being verified in general has its benefits, as you know. It helps you get noticed by journalists and gives you legitimacy,” Ocasio-Cortez continued. “That said, I’m not sure if everyone should get a blue check purely based on an FEC filing, since there’s a lot of troll campaigns out there. But at the very least, if you’re running and have a track record of organizing, then there should be work,” or published articles, “on you.”

Indeed, a more lenient verification policy could end up encouraging right-wing personalities to launch bids for office with the sole intention of growing their personal clout, a stunt several conservative grifters are already pulling for 2020. A recent report from the Daily Beast highlighted this trend, offering anti-Muslim activist Laura Loomer, who’s been banned from several social media platforms, and conservative YouTube prankster Joey “Salads” Saladino, who’s verified on Twitter, as two examples of people running to boost their public profiles.

In the Texas Senate race, MJ Hegar, one of the Democrats lining up to take on Republican Sen. John Cornyn, does have Twitter verification. (Hegar also ran for Congress in the 2018 cycle.) But Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, a progressive in the crowded primary, has not been verified. Neither are Houston City Council member Amanda Edwards and Sema Hernandez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America who challenged O’Rourke for the 2018 nomination and won 24 percent of the vote.

Tzintzún Ramirez is also a longtime organizer and the founder of a Texas-based nonprofit that mobilizes young Latino voters. Her campaign has been covered by a number of media outlets, including this one, and she took in more than $200,000 in the 24 hours after announcing her run for Senate.

“Twitter’s policy creates an uneven playing field for candidates,” Zack Malitz, a campaign senior adviser for Tzintzún Ramirez, said in a statement. “If you’ve run for or held office before, you’re likely verified. If you’re a first-time candidate and not a politician, you don’t get verified. Twitter is putting its thumb on the scales in a way that favors insiders and hurts insurgents like Cristina.”

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