Media holds breath amid chaotic changes to Twitter verification

People walk outside Twitter headquarters
Associated Press/Jeff Chiu
People walk outside Twitter headquarters in San Francisco, Friday, Nov. 4, 2022.

Correction: An earlier version of this report misidentified Paul Barrett of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.

Elon Musk’s short-lived rollout of a process allowing users to pay for blue verification check marks wreaked havoc on Twitter, especially for journalists, celebrities and other news makers on the site.

With Musk indicating the process is likely to return soon, journalists and media companies are being forced to consider how to maintain credibility, verify information put out on Twitter and connect with audiences on a platform that appears to be changing by the day. 

The change to the verification system is part of Musk’s larger vision, after closing his $44 billion deal to buy Twitter, to retool the platform so information is allowed to flow more freely. As he begins to implement those plans, accounts from media companies, entertainment personalities and other top influencers face what the eccentric billionaire has said would be “increased competition from citizens” in the information space — and users are dealing with new challenges in parsing the legitimacy of sources on the platform as a result. 

 “Under the old verification system, Twitter had fairly clear standards of who you had to be in order to be a verified user,” said John Silva, senior director of professional and community learning at the News Literacy Project. “That check mark was a signal to us that we know it’s coming from an authentic source. … There are lots of people who were verified that were prolific posters of misinformation and such, but it just meant that we knew exactly who it was coming from.” 

Before Musk took over at the end of October, Twitter let users apply for verification through account settings. Users had to qualify under Twitter’s criteria of being deemed a “notable” figure in a designated category, such as news, entertainment or government, and provide a government issued ID or official email address relevant to the category the user chose. Once approved, accounts received Twitter’s signature blue check mark to prove they were verified. 

Last week, Musk turned that system upside down by letting users pay for blue check marks as part of a $7.99 per month subscription for “Twitter Blue.” Twitter indicated that under the new system users would not be verified by identity, meaning check marks could no longer be used to confirm whether a verified account was really run by who — or what — it purported to be. But the quick change caused chaos on the site despite the warning as accounts impersonating companies and figures received blue check marks. 

“We’ve had kind of a status quo with verification over the years with Twitter,” said Jennifer Grygiel, an associate professor of communications at Syracuse University. “There’s a culture that has developed around that and a public expectation of trust, and so that’s really hard to change quickly.”

A number of leading media organizations are taking notice of changes to verification and other policies on content moderation and fake or parody accounts.

Last week, leadership at NPR reportedly issued internal guidance to its journalists on Twitter, telling them to refrain from giving out their handles on the air and asking for listeners to follow them. 

“Even if you don’t use your account or are unhappy with the changes at Twitter please do not abandon your account(s) as someone else could take your handle and claim to be you,” the guidance said. 

An NPR spokesperson told The Hill this week the company has not officially changed its policy on social media and said, “We’re all waiting to see how this all keeps going.” 

Representatives from the New York Times and Washington Post, two of the top news organizations in the U.S. who employ some of the country’s most widely followed journalists, offered similar refrains. 

“We are closely monitoring and don’t plan to comment beyond that for now,” a Times spokesperson said on Tuesday. 

There have been signs of an effort to shift away from a dependence on Twitter by the Times specifically in recent months. In April, months before Musk finalized an agreement to buy the company, the newspaper sent new guidance to members of its newsroom suggesting that use of the social media platform is strictly optional given the dangers of online harassment.

“If you do choose to stay on, we encourage you to meaningfully reduce how much time you’re spending on the platform, tweeting or scrolling, in relation to other parts of your job,” Dean Baquet, the newspaper’s top editor, wrote to staffers at the time. 

Twitter paused Twitter Blue subscriptions last week after the initial launch of the revamped subscription service led to accounts with blue check marks impersonating figures like LeBron James and former President George W. Bush, among many others. One tweet posted by an account posing as pharmaceutical brand Eli Lilly caused confusion over the fake account offering free insulin, precipitating a significant drop in the company’s stock.

Musk, who has come under fire for posting false or offensive content on his own Twitter account followed by millions, wrote in a post on Thursday that going forward “accounts engaged in parody must include ‘parody’ in their name, not just in bio.” It’s not entirely clear from Musk’s tweets how the new requirement will impact the process, but the CEO told a Twitter user Saturday that Twitter Blue will “probably” return this week. 

Musk also dismissed scrutiny from lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) pressed Musk on the new verification system after The Washington Post was able to get a fake Markey account verified. 

“Perhaps it is because your real account sounds like a parody?” Musk replied to Markey’s letter in a tweet Sunday. “And why does your [personal profile] have a mask!?”

Markey doubled down, telling Musk — who is also the CEO of Tesla and SpaceX — to “fix” his companies “or Congress will.” 

Amid the chaotic rollout of the paid-for check marks, Twitter also started applying supplementary gray “official” labels to some accounts, but it remains unclear how those labels are being dispersed. A Twitter spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. 

Twitter has a fraction of the user base of other mainstream social media platforms, reporting an average of 237.8 million daily monetizable users compared to Meta’s 2.9 billion daily average users, according to each company’s most recent quarterly earnings reports. Musk took Twitter private when he closed the deal in October, so the company will no longer have to disclose that data. 

Despite having a smaller user base than Facebook, Twitter is widely popular among media figures, who use the site to share stories and other commentary on current events.

“You can find political pronouncements by politicians, by pundits, activists and others there. And if you want to see what, say, someone like Elon Musk has to say, Twitter is the place to go,” said Paul Barrett, the deputy director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights.

That popularity among journalists may not be entirely good “even in the best of times,” Barrett said, but it’s a fact of the news ecosystem in recent years. 

“But now, we are seeing that you have to be much, much more careful than perhaps you were just a few weeks ago to make sure you are looking at an authentic account,” he added. 

Those base level concerns about users mistakenly believing accounts with check marks are authentic are amplified by layoffs at Twitter that weaken the platform’s ability to moderate content, Barrett said. 

“I’m not saying that there’s no value to be had on Twitter. I haven’t abandoned ship myself, yet, but people are beginning to shy away,” he said. 

The relationship between Twitter and the news media and other large publishers has always been a complicated and somewhat fraught one, said Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute. 

“When your distribution model depends on somebody other than you, you have to know that they can change it any time and it can be highly disruptive to you and there’s nothing you can do about it,” Tompkins said. “This is one of the problems that every news organization faces. … You have to be able to add and drop your dependency on them at a moment’s notice.”

–Updated on Nov. 17 at 9:51 a.m.

Tags Elon Musk Elon Musk Twitter Twitter

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