What Elon Musk’s plans for Twitter’s verification check marks mean for you

What Elon Musk’s plans for Twitter’s verification check marks mean for you

It didn’t take long for Elon Musk to weaponize his shiny new $44 billion toy. He’s made a few changes and promised many more, but for now, the most controversial Twitter update is what he’s done to verification. Musk has opened up Twitter’s blue checks to anyone who wants to pay for them.

It also didn’t take long for Twitter users to take advantage of the ease with which they could get those blue checks. In the hours after blue checks were put up for sale, Twitter was flooded with all kinds of verified impersonators, from Jesus to a fake (but verified) LeBron James announcing he wanted to be traded away from the Lakers. Brands were also hit, with a fake (verified) Nintendo account tweeting an image of Mario flipping the bird.

Mario being rude.

This is not from Nintendo’s official account.

Most of the impersonators were removed, though some stayed up for hours — despite Musk’s insistence that fake verified accounts would be dealt with swiftly to mitigate any damage they might do.

Earlier that day, Twitter rolled out gray “official” check marks and badges, but those were taken away just hours later, with Musk tweeting that he “just killed it” because he wants blue checks to “be the great leveler.” A Twitter executive later tweeted that the gray checks were “still going out,” but not yet to individuals. Even so, gray checks were also removed from most, if not all, of the commercial accounts that had them. Maybe they’ll come back. Maybe they won’t!

Twitter, which reportedly laid off almost all of its public relations team, did not respond to request for comment.

Back on November 1, under the guise of bringing “power to the people” and overhauling a “bullshit” system, Musk announced that Twitter will soon charge users $8 a month for a Twitter Blue subscription in order to gain or keep their verified status and the blue check badges that come with it. If $8 a month sounds like a lot of money, it could be worse: Author Stephen King inadvertently bargained Musk down from $20.

The Twitter Blue check marks aren’t exactly the same as the ones granted before Musk’s takeover. If you click on a blue check on an account’s profile page, a window pops up telling you if the account is verified because it belongs to someone “notable” (i.e., was given the check before Musk bought Twitter), or if it’s because the person paid for it through Twitter Blue.

While initial reports (and Musk himself) said that Twitter would eventually take blue checks away from people who already had them and didn’t want to pay to keep them, Twitter seems to have changed its mind on that. Twitter’s help section on verification — which has been revamped to reflect Musk’s changes — implies that pre-Musk blue checks will remain in place even if their holders aren’t Twitter Blue members. But Twitter will no longer be giving them out to non-paying notable accounts, and they “can be taken away at any time for any reason.”

Even if you want to pay for a check mark, you may not yet be able to. According to Twitter’s verification help page, it’s currently only available for iOS devices in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

The fate of the gray checks remains unknown. Director of product management Esther Crawford tweeted on November 8 that Twitter will be introducing a new “official” label to select accounts to reduce the chances that the new Twitter Blue subscribers will be able to impersonate them. The gray checks would have been chosen by Twitter and could not be purchased, essentially serving the same purpose in a similar (but grayer) manner.

The next day, following Musk’s “I just killed it” tweet, Crawford tweeted that the official badge would only focus on “government and official entities to begin with,” and would not be given to individual accounts. However, the official badge was also removed from company, government, and brand accounts and has yet to return.

Musk should have known that verified impersonators would be an issue on his platform because he himself has been impersonated by verified accounts, which changed their display names to “Elon Musk” as a form of protest. The supposed champion of free speech and comedy responded to that by changing Twitter’s rules to permanently ban without warning any account that impersonated someone else and wasn’t clearly marked as a parody.

Verification to anyone willing to pay for it ignores the reasons the existing system was put in place and potentially undermines the overall trust in Twitter that it’s supposed to provide. It’s also not the best look for the brands whose advertisements Twitter needs to make money. They were already nervous about Musk, and now they’re seeing fake accounts that look like their own, tweeting their mascot doing rude things.

As far as we know, free Twitter will still exist. Musk says paid users would get a verification badge, and their tweets would get priority in replies, mentions, and searches; they’d also get to post longer videos, and they’d see fewer ads (but they’d still see ads). It probably shouldn’t even be called a “verification” badge anymore, either, as identity verification isn’t necessary to get it (the money, it seems, is plenty and enough). And the blue check would no longer be a way to mitigate the spread of disinformation, as it was originally designed to be. Depending on who is willing to give Elon Musk $96 a year and what they have to say, it may well amplify it.

This all assumes, of course, that what Musk says on Twitter is actually true — and that he doesn’t change his mind again.

Truth on Twitter can be as hard to find as it is important, which is why the verification system exists in the first place. The system does not exist to tell users that some people are special and others aren’t, which is what a lot of people who aren’t verified (and don’t like a lot of the people who are) seem to think. It’s designed to give anyone who reads those tweets some reassurance that the person who’s sending them is who they claim to be, which comes in handy when you’re relying on those people to disseminate important information. That includes everything from movie stars’ public statements to safety warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to breaking news from journalists.

This is something that Musk’s big plans for Twitter Blue and verification will upend. And that’s why a lot of people are upset about it.

What those blue checks actually do and why

If you’re one of the many people in the world who don’t use Twitter, you may not understand exactly what a blue check is, why you should care about it, or why it seems to be so crucial to Musk’s business plan for Twitter. You may think none of this applies to you. Directly, it probably doesn’t.

But the blue checks are about more than just a badge next to a name. (Also: The blue checks are actually white checks inside a blue circle with scalloped borders.) Like many of Twitter’s best and most enduring features, the verification badges were an attempt to solve a problem Twitter also created.

Twitter began verifying accounts in 2009 to settle a lawsuit from famous baseball guy Tony La Russa over a fake Tony La Russa account. Back then, it was relatively easy to squat on a famous person’s name and make a fake account pretending to be them. That’s why Donald Trump had to go with “@realDonaldTrump” when he joined Twitter; someone had already taken @donaldtrump and made it a Trump parody account. Tina Fey says she’s never been on Twitter, but a lot of people sure thought @TinaFey (now @NotTinaFey) was her. And then there are the many, many Fake Will Ferrell Twitter accounts. That said, like most things Twitter, verification isn’t perfect: Author Cormac McCarthy’s fake account was somehow verified as recently as 2021.

Twitter first doled out the checks to high-profile and official accounts, then expanded the program to accounts that weren’t necessarily celebrities. That group included accounts that Twitter wanted its users to trust were run by the people and institutions they claimed to be associated with — namely, politicians, brands, and journalists.

Now let me give you an idea of what Twitter was like back when those blue checks were harder to come by, and the world we may return to now that blue checks can be bought. Back in 2012 or so, the process for being verified was even more opaque and arbitrary than it is today. You got verified if you were famous enough that someone at Twitter decided you needed it, or if you knew someone at Twitter, or if the publication you worked for had an in with Twitter’s small Journalism & News team. Back then, I will admit, a blue check was special, because it was rarer and you had to be somebody or know somebody to get it.

In 2016, Twitter let people apply to be verified. A lot more people got blue checks, although some people who probably should have gotten blue checks were denied and some people who really shouldn’t have gotten them were accepted. When people started asking why white supremacists were getting blue check marks, Twitter revoked the badges and closed down the verification application process altogether. The company only reopened it last year.

“The verification system is imperfect and a little bit problematic in the way that it’s currently formed,” Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told Recode. Even with the application system, Twitter ultimately does pick who gets to be verified and who doesn’t, she said, and it has made mistakes and tends to favor people in the US. But she still thinks Twitter’s current verification system is better than what Musk is proposing to replace it with. “It’s still a symbol that somebody has vetted you. Somebody has checked you out.”

Before Musk’s changes, there were about 425,000 verified accounts, according to @verified. That’s enough for the blue check to no longer be the exclusive special symbol it was once seen as, but it’s also a small percentage of Twitter’s total user base, which Twitter has said is about 240 million monetizable (as in, actual people and not bots) daily active users. But that number is only a fraction of the user base of far more popular and profitable platforms like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok.

A recent report says that the vast majority of tweets come from relatively few users, and those heavy tweeters are in decline — which is another, much more difficult, problem that Musk will soon have to solve and might want to focus more of his energies on.

Elon Musk’s obsession with verification

So why are blue checks so important to Musk? Likely because he assigns a value to them that he thinks the vast majority of Twitter’s users share and therefore will be willing to pay for if given the chance. Plus, messing with them is a great way to hurt journalists, a profession he really doesn’t like, especially when he thinks it’s being mean to him. This is also a way to appeal to the right-wing base to which he’s become some kind of savior.

Slowly but surely, the right wing has made “blue check” into a pejorative, a way to collectively describe people they don’t like — especially journalists and supposedly woke SJW celebrities. (Some of the same people who make fun of blue checks also have blue checks, but somehow theirs don’t count.) There’s also the fact that Twitter “punished” certain accounts by taking away their blue checks, which upset one blue check-loser so much that he tried to tell on Twitter to the White House.

To some, blue checks are seen as a mark of privilege, something they can’t have that’s possessed by people they don’t like. There is a sense that being verified is extremely important to the ego-driven, left-wing elitist journalist, and that those blue checks simply couldn’t live without their little badges or the thought of the unwashed masses having them, too. So if you’re Elon Musk and looking for a way to make money, stick it to people you don’t like, and please your adoring fans, charging for a blue check might seem like a great way to accomplish all three in one fell swoop. Bonus points for framing it as a way to “bring power to the people” and get rid of Twitter’s “current lords and peasants system” … as long as, you know, the peasants can pay $8 a month to become a lord. It’s also a way to compromise one of the very things the system was designed for.

Musk says this is also “the only way to defeat the bots and trolls” because it will cost them too much to create accounts that will either lose their blue check or be banned for violating Twitter’s rules. But Twitter will still have the free tier, and it’s not clear yet how many of its legitimate users will be willing to pay, let alone the bots and trolls.

Twitter also will not require identity authentication for its new class of blue checks, because people will already have to go through some kind of verification process with their app store and payment processors to be able to subscribe to and pay for Twitter Blue in the first place, Twitter’s head of safety and integrity Yoel Roth has said. Even so, this completely changes the purpose of those checks and will likely confuse people who have spent the last 13 years thinking of Twitter’s blue check as a mark of authenticity.

“Verification check marks without verification of identity defeat the purpose and instead simply provide proof of payment,” York said. “While charging users for features is fine on its own, it makes no sense to call this ‘verification.’”

For people who aren’t verified and have always wanted to be, I can see why paying for a blue check is so attractive. But Musk and his acolytes, who seem to think blue checks are only about status, don’t seem to understand why the company has, over the years, made a series of decisions about who and what the platform should verify and amplify (or suppress). These decisions weren’t made because Twitter employees are sensitive snowflakes who can’t stand to see conservative viewpoints. They were made because Twitter is a business, and it made business decisions to minimize objectionable and harmful users and content. That includes things like misinformation, racial slurs, conspiracy theories, state-sponsored propaganda campaigns, and calls to violence.

It never did those things perfectly, but it knew why it had to try: Users generally didn’t want to see that stuff, advertisers didn’t want their products featured alongside it, and it’s a really bad look for a company to be seen as a purveyor of harmful content, to the point that it’s partially blamed for a genocide.

Musk threatens to throw all of that away rather than learning from it and continuing to improve the company he’s already sunk so much of his money and reputation into. If people are willing to pay a little more to spread misinformation — and we’ve already seen them do this, just hours into the new system’s rollout — Twitter will become an even greater amplifier of harmful lies than it already is. And while Twitter does tell you if an account is verified because it’s a notable account that was actually verified under Twitter’s old system or because someone just paid for it, you still do have to click on a user’s profile and then click the blue check to see that.

Also, there’s reason to believe that the blue check won’t be much of a status symbol — if it ever was one — when anyone who has $8 to spare can get it. Dr. Seuss taught us this a long time ago. But hey, this is the guy who built a reusable rocket, thanks in part to his vision but mostly to SpaceX’s talented engineers and massive government subsidies. He may well see something in Twitter and blue check payola that the rest of us don’t, and all of these seemingly spur-of-the-moment decisions were actually carefully considered and months in the making.

If not, the blue check will soon only signify that the name it’s next to was willing to pay for something that used to be free. As Musk himself tweeted, “you get what you pay for.” Now we’ll see what it’s actually worth.

Update, November 9, 6:30 pm ET: This story was originally published on November 4 and has been updated to include several changes to the new verification system Musk initially proposed.