A price to pay for a freewheeling web

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 January, 2012, 12:00am


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There has always been an element of addiction about the internet, but the explosive popularity of Twitter has made it especially so. The social networking site has become a place for information about what the rich and famous are doing. Anyone who is anyone - or believes they are - has a presence; some attract millions of fans, and newshounds. However, the recent scandal over an account set up in the name of media mogul Rupert Murdoch's wife, Wendi Deng, has highlighted an often overlooked reality of the online world: you cannot always believe what you read.

Nothing is more sought after by Twitter's users than the blue-and-white verification badge. The first come, first served principle that applies across the internet is observed, making it challenging for late-arriving celebrities to tweet under their real names. Twitter is therefore awash with spoof accounts full of misinformation. How the firm behind it verifies identities has been brought into question after authenticity was temporarily given to a user claiming to be Deng, but who turned out not to be.

The account was set up a day after Murdoch himself started tweeting, giving a note of authenticity to the tweets that were sent out. Deng was made aware of the prank and the badge was removed. But the incident highlights an especially vexing problem with the internet - how to prove a user's identity.

The authorities in Beijing think they have found the solution, ordering users of microblogs in the city to register their real names with services. The approach will eventually apply across the mainland. But it is being done not to sort out the real from the bogus but to identify people perceived as having posted inflammatory comments.

Twitter has to come up with a better means of verification, but it cannot use China as a model. As problematic as the internet's free-wheeling ways may be, they give us freedoms that must be preserved. That means being careful about where we get our information.