Why removing Twitter’s legacy blue check marks matters

After April 1, it will be easier than ever to impersonate someone and create a persona of having authority because anyone can pay and pretend to be someone who hasn’t already claimed their handle, said Ryan. — Photo by Akshar Dave

In 2009, Twitter Inc introduced a blue check mark next to some users’ names to signal that they were “verified” by the company as legitimate accounts. At least initially, it was a bid to clamp down on handles run by impersonators.

Since then, the check mark has become a status signal, amplifying the voices of those who have it and leading some to question the decisions to grant one.

When billionaire Elon Musk took over the social media platform last year, the check mark gained new meaning, becoming a symbol of the turmoil engulfing the company, the financial challenges it now faces and how all things on the social-media platform are being monetised. Musk is now granting status to anyone willing to pay a monthly subscription fee.

Check marks doled out before the subscription model was introduced, known as legacy check marks, have lingered for months on the accounts of people who haven’t necessarily been paying for them. But Musk is set to crack down on these, saying they’re due to disappear on April 1.

What does having a blue check mark mean these days?

These days – but especially post-April 1 – a blue check mark basically just means a user who meets certain eligibility criteria is paying for it.

After taking San Francisco-based Twitter private in October, Musk introduced a pay-for-verification “Blue” service, where users shelling out US$8 a month would get a blue check mark. This turned into a fiasco, with Eli Lilly & Co among companies becoming the subject of fake tweets sent by impostors with “verified” parody accounts.

Twitter paused the Blue service in November, and relaunched it in December with a charge of US$8 per month. At the time, Musk said people who don’t pay for Twitter Blue will lose their verification badges “in a few months.” That day is about to arrive.

What happens if I lose my legacy check mark?

Part of the sales pitch for Twitter Blue is that it will help accounts “rocket to the top of replies, mentions and search.” In addition, the “For You” feed, the default view for users of the social network, will no longer recommend content from accounts that aren’t verified, Musk tweeted on Monday.

So if you don’t subscribe, your content won’t be shown to people who aren’t following you. This could potentially have a huge impact on the platform by shifting the focus of feeds from popularity – leveraging the creators with the biggest fan base – to payment, according to Mandeep Singh, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence.

Unverified users also won’t be able to participate in any of the polls that Twitter conducts. This can be a weighty matter – Musk conducted a poll in December asking if he should remain as chief executive officer, and said he’d abide by the results of the survey. Though 57.5% of respondents said he should step down, he’s still at the helm of the company.

Why is verification so important?

It’s all about the bots. Musk has always claimed that eliminating bots is a key reason he paid US$44bil to buy the company. Bots are automated accounts that can do the same things as real human beings, like send out tweets, but spam bots use these actions to engage in deceptive, harmful and annoying activity, like tweet incessantly in an attempt to drive traffic to a website for a product or service. They can also spread misinformation and promote political messages. Twitter Blue, by highlighting verified accounts, helps downgrade spam.

Will it still be possible to create a fake Twitter handle after April 1?

It will be easier than ever to impersonate someone and create a persona of having authority because anyone can pay and pretend to be someone who hasn’t already claimed their handle, said Melissa Ryan, founder of Card Strategies, a consulting firm that helps nonprofits deal with issues of far-right extremism and online toxicity, including disinformation.

She points out that verification has not created an elite class of Tweeters as a lot of people, including herself, are verified. One person who’s already worried is Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern who had been embroiled in a sex scandal with former President Bill Clinton.

Is Twitter Blue the only hope for tackling the bots?

Two-factor authentication is an option, but here Twitter has earned the ire of the cybersecurity community with its announcement in February that only Twitter Blue subscribers can use text-based account verification. With that process, users enter their username and password into Twitter and then receive a message to their phone with a unique code that they type in for access to the site.

It’s not a perfect security mechanism, but it’s a convenient and mostly effective way of keeping hackers out of accounts. – Bloomberg

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