A Twitter account for Russia’s Foreign Ministry outpost in Crimea has been verified by Twitter, sparking a complaint from several countries that object to anything that might legitimize Russia’s grip on the territory.
For the last several years, Twitter has been grappling with perceptions of just what exactly the coveted “blue checkmark” means. In verifying a user, the debate goes, is Twitter then granting a form of legitimacy to the account? Or is the tech company merely informing users that the account is who it claims it is?
The question is coming to a head for international diplomats in the form of the @PMSimferopol account, which is run by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The account, which bills itself as the official account for the MFA’s Representative Office in Simferopol, mostly tweets idyllic scenery and other cultural ephemera in an attempt to boost tourism to Crimea.
But it also sneaks in trollish jabs at just who controls the territory, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Fewer than two dozen countries have expressed support for Moscow’s position, which claims that a referendum that year, which was not recognized internationally, showed that the people of Crimea had voted to join the Russian Federation.
The blue checkmark next to the account’s display name has become a major problem for former Eastern bloc countries trying to push back against Russia’s expansionism. “A wannabe account of an illegal occupant who pretends that it has any right to have a branch-office in an independent country?
Credibility much?” tweeted Jędrzej Tomczak, who, despite being a Polish diplomat assigned to NATO, is unverified on Twitter.
On Thursday, Ukraine’s Embassy to the United Kingdom tweeted that it had sent an official complaint to Twitter about the Crimea account. “It’s absolutely unacceptable to give so called #Russia’s MFA in occupied #Crimea a blue tick!” the account wrote. “RU illegally annexed Crimea, militarized it & commits gross violations of human rights. Twitter must block that account!”
In a statement to BuzzFeed News, Ukraine's embassy said it had provided "additional explanations" to Twitter on the status of Crimea, and that Twitter was still looking into the issue of the verified account.
But Russia's Foreign Ministry told BuzzFeed News that the checkmark wasn't going anywhere, noting that the account is "popular among Twitter users."
"As you can see, this account is popular among Twitter users," the statement continued. "Unlike many fake or parody Twitter accounts @PMSimferopol is a responsible member of Twitter community. It functions as a reliable source of official information on Crimea."
"As far as @PMSimferopol operates in full compliance with the rules and regulations of Twitter community, the blue checkmark is in its right place," the statement continued. "We consider any attempts to revoke the blue checkmark or delete this account as an infringement on global freedom of speech in Internet."
Twitter did immediately responded to BuzzFeed News’ request for comment on the matter.
Twitter isn’t the first tech company to run into problems when trying to navigate international territorial disputes. Google faced backlash in 2016 when users believed that the company’s Maps feature had removed the name “Palestine” from the territory. But a spokesperson at the time told the Guardian that the whole thing was a misunderstanding.
“There has never been a ‘Palestine’ label on Google Maps, however we discovered a bug that removed the labels for ‘West Bank’ and ‘Gaza Strip’. We’re working quickly to bring these labels back to the area,” the spokesperson said.