Opinion

I Got Impersonated For Calling Out Ableism – Twitter’s Verification Process Must Protect Disabled People

In recognising that Twitter’s verification offers more than legitimacy, the recently relaunched policy can and must be used to take the wind out of the sails of ableism and protect disabled users like me.

I can confirm that I am the real Liam O’Dell, despite what superfans of the Australian singer Sia Furler may have you believe on Twitter over the past 24 hours. A single tweet about a cover of her track with DJ David Guetta, Titanium, at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in the Netherlands had sparked a significant backlash. Supporters were uncomfortable with being reminded that the Chandelier musician had been behind one of the worst – and most ableist – films of the past year, Music, and began supporting an impersonation account created to defame my character.

I don’t wish to delve too deep into the reasons why the February 2021 film, starring long-time Sia collaborator Maddie Ziegler, is problematic – on this occasion, that’s not the issue at hand. However, on a very basic level, Ziegler is non-autistic or ‘allistic’, playing the role of a character who is a non-speaking autistic person. When Sia was reminded of the insensitivity of such a casting decision, she was defensive, insulting autistic actors and bemoaning the fact that people had criticised a film which was to be her directorial debut. After such controversy, Sia went on to confess that the casting of Ziegler was “ableism, I guess” and “nepotism”.

If you need to read beyond this, then I’d strongly recommend watching the film LISTEN and researching comments from autistic activists who have been speaking out against this film ever since it was first announced.

It was Sia’s ableist approach to directing Music, and responding to criticism about it, that inspired my Eurovision tweet. Relieved that I was listening to a cover, I tweeted: “Nice to listen to a version of Titanium which isn’t sung by an ableist.” An onslaught followed, and continues to take place at the time of writing – the most significant aspect of which is an account that changed its profile picture to one of myself, its username to ‘Liam O’Dell Charts’ and its bio to “bringing you the latest news about award winning, critically acclaimed, deaf journalist, Liam O’Dell”.

Aside from the inaccurate statement that I am an “award winning” journalist (I’ve only ever been nominated for journalism awards, though “critically acclaimed” I will gladly accept), there is something concerning about how disability campaigners can be the target of impersonators. The creation of accounts in the name of celebrities, while often inappropriate, are to be expected for people with that level of fame. For disabled people however, being a marginalised community by definition, that issue does not apply.

The downside to that, of course, is that it makes it harder for activists on Twitter to be verified. The new guidelines, in terms of activity on the app, focus on the tiny figure of the top 0.05% of active accounts. Either that, or “creating a hashtag movement that is capturing a large volume of conversation within a given community”. While I know of many campaigners who have pushed work through a branded hashtag (I’ve recently started using #BoredOfAudism in order to meet this criteria), most activists do not structure their campaigning around a single hashtag, for the reason that that is simply reductionist. Another section of the form requires individuals to have a significant amount of news coverage, but most disabled people will tell you that media representation for disabled people is still in dire need of improvement.

So this brings me back to my initial point, in that in addition to that sought after blue tick adding legitimacy to an account, it can also dispel ableists looking to create impersonation accounts to undo their important activism. It’s not stated in their verification policy, but the number of successful reports for impersonation should be a consideration when it comes to deciding whether an account is “notable”. As the past 24 hours have proven to me, it isn’t just celebrities who can be harmed by a malicious impersonation attempt.

Some readers may argue that verifying small accounts run by disabled people could jeopardise the integrity of a process reserved for individuals who are more high profile, but as I’ve already said, campaigners often aren’t in that position by default, and have to work to get to such a position. Not only that, but when the standard reporting process is not working (I’ve made several reports to Twitter about targeted harassment, only for them to be rejected immediately in an email), one has to wonder whether another process – verification – could fill the gaps in the holes of Twitter’s current verification policy.

Ableism is rife on Twitter, and in working to tackle it, the platform and its policies need to recognise that campaigners aren’t always popular – in every sense of the word, as my impersonation has shown.

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