On finalizing his acquisition of Twitter last October, one of the first things that Elon Musk did was announce that users would need to pay twenty dollars a month if they wanted to access premium “Twitter Blue” features. Twitter Blue launched in 2021, under Twitter’s previous management, at a price of five dollars per month; it offered subscribers the ability to edit tweets for thirty seconds after sending them, among other features including a bookmarking function and a tool for reading long Twitter threads. Musk suggested that his price hike would be worth it because Twitter Blue would also now give users a coveted blue checkmark showing that they had been verified. Musk said that those who already had blue checks would have ninety days to start paying for Twitter Blue before they lost their verified status. Some verified celebrities were not amused by this plan and said so, including on Twitter. “$20 a month to keep my blue check?” the author Stephen King tweeted. “If that gets instituted, I’m gone like Enron.”
A few days later, Musk lowered the cost of verification to the low low price of eight dollars a month. He argued that Twitter’s original verification system was elitist, since only some members of the media and celebrities had blue checks. “Twitter’s current lords & peasants system for who has or doesn’t have a blue checkmark is bullshit,” he wrote on November 1. “Power to the people! Blue for $8/month.” But, as with so much else Musk has touched, the rollout of the new feature quickly turned into a train wreck. Some users who were already verified showed their contempt for the new plan by changing their account details and pretending to be someone else. The comedian Sarah Silverman pretended to be Musk by copying his profile picture and display name, then tweeted satirical comments. (“I am a freedom of speech absolutist and I eat doody for breakfast every day.”) The actress Valerie Bertinelli also changed her profile name to Musk’s, then tweeted support for Democratic candidates in the 2022 midterms. (Musk had called on “independent-minded voters” to back Republicans.)
Musk responded on Twitter that any account engaging in impersonation without specifying that it was a parody would be permanently suspended, and that changing an account name would result in the “temporary loss” of the user’s checkmark. The train wreck wasn’t over, however. Twitter’s own official account announced that in order to prevent impersonation, it would offer a separate “official” badge that would be added to “government accounts, commercial companies, business partners, major media outlets, publishers and some public figures.” A few minutes later, Musk announced that he had killed the feature, although the new, white checkmarks that came with it remained attached to some accounts. Meanwhile, over the next few days, the impersonations continued: as Engadget noted, an account posing as Nintendo posted a picture of Mario with his middle finger raised, while an account claiming to be LeBron James said that he was looking to get traded. Most infamous, perhaps, was the time that a verified account claiming to belong to the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly tweeted: “Insulin is free now.” The account of the real Eli Lilly apologized; its insulin was not in fact free now. The fake tweet and ensuing chaos erased around fifteen billion dollars from the company’s market cap.
Twitter briefly halted signups to Twitter Blue. In December, though, they re-started, and Musk reiterated that legacy accounts that refused to pay for verification would have their blue checks removed in a matter of months. Around the same time, a reporter for the Washington Post was able to impersonate Senator Ed Markey and get his fake account verified. Twitter eventually confirmed that it would remove checks from legacy accounts on April 1. (That this was April Fool’s Day was lost on no one.) The date came and went with blue checkmarks still attached to previously verified accounts that hadn’t subscribed to Twitter Blue (including my own). The only thing that appeared to have changed was the notification that Twitter showed if a user hovered their cursor over a checkmark. Before the Twitter Blue plan was rolled out, legacy accounts would say, “This is a legacy verified account—it may or may not be notable.” The language now reads, “This account is verified because it’s subscribed to Twitter Blue or is a legacy verified account.”
As more than one observer has pointed out, the new policy makes it difficult to distinguish between accounts that have a verified checkmark under the old program and those that have merely been paid for, more or less neutering the original point of checks: verification. Larry Madowo, an international correspondent for CNN, noted that after twelve years of being verified, “anyone will be able to create an account in my name and get it verified for $8 monthly.” Twitter’s pay-for-play verification plan, he added, “will have major international implications. This could be weaponized and/or abused by bad actors for disinformation, impersonation, incitement and scams.” Katharine Trendacosta, the associate director of policy and activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, wrote that Musk’s change “fundamentally misunderstands what made Twitter useful in the first place.”
In a tweet that was later deleted, Musk said that legacy verified accounts would be given “a few weeks grace” before their blue checkmarks were removed, unless they said they wouldn’t pay, in which case they would be removed immediately. (James said publicly that he wouldn’t pay. He still has a blue checkmark.) A report from the Post suggested that the process could take even longer than Musk’s new timeline, both because of the way it was originally implemented and because of staffing shortages at Twitter. According to former employees, the original verification badge process was “a largely manual process powered by a system prone to breaking,” rooted in a large internal database that was plagued by bugs. Someone would try to remove a badge but the change wouldn’t take in Twitter’s system, and there was no way to remove badges in bulk. “It was all held together with duct tape,” one former staffer told the Post.Sign up for CJR’s daily email
During its verification overhaul, Twitter also launched a program offering businesses different-coloured badges for a thousand dollars a month (gold for brands, companies, and nonprofits; gray for governmental entities). Twitter said recently that it would waive the fee for the five hundred largest advertisers and the ten thousand most followed brands on the platform, presumably as a way of convincing them to stay put. (According to Bloomberg, Twitter ad spending by top brands has declined by close to ninety percent since Musk’s takeover.)
One company not given any special treatment (at least, not in a positive way) was the New York Times, whose gold checkmark was removed after the paper said that it would not pay for verification. “NY Times is being incredible hypocritical here,” Musk tweeted, “as they are super aggressive about forcing everyone to pay their subscription.” Other news organizations have also said that they won’t pay to be verified, as has the White House. At time of writing, only the Times (among major news outlets, at least), had lost its check, though NPR had newly been tagged as “US state-affiliated media.”
I don’t remember exactly when I got verified on Twitter, but I think it was sometime around 2012. In most cases, Twitter reached out to celebrities or other noteworthy accounts to verify them. I was told that the company wanted to verify journalists in order to make it easier for people to find trusted sources of information, so I reached out to a Twitter staffer via DM and a day or so later I had a blue check. Because there was no real transparency around who got verified, or how to go about it, being verified gained a kind of mystique. At one point, my daughter mentioned that I was verified on Twitter to a salesperson in a store, and he gasped and demanded to know how I had obtained such exalted status.
Like many others, I thought that the randomness and inscrutability of the verification system was a problem, so I was almost glad when Twitter put it on hold a few years back. Now I feel a vague sense of unease that if my blue check remains, people will assume I paid for it. I have no plans to do so, not just because I disagree with what Musk has done with Twitter in any number of ways, but because the entire purpose of verification has been subverted by this new system, making the checkmark effectively meaningless.
Musk doesn’t seem fazed, either by the criticism of Twitter’s policies or any of the many other aggravations currently surrounding him, including a lawsuit claiming that he engineered a pyramid scheme to promote the cryptocurrency Dogecoin. This week, Twitter changed the logo that it uses on the app from a white bird on a blue background to a small picture of a Shiba Inu: the Dogecoin logo, itself taken from a viral meme. (“Doge,” in this context, has nothing to do with historical Venice.) The price of the cryptocurrency climbed by more than twenty percent after the change was made, even though it wasn’t clear who ordered it or why. More than one Twitter user speculated that the change was an April Fool’s joke that went live several days too late because of Twitter’s shortage of engineers. Press inquiries to Twitter, meanwhile, now get an automated reply featuring a different emoji: a pile of poop.