Musk halts Twitter’s coveted blue tick as impostors run amok

Twitter Inc paused its recently announced $8 blue tick subscription service on Friday as fake accounts exploded, and new owner Elon Musk brought back the “official” badge to some users of the social media platform.

The coveted blue check mark was previously reserved for verified accounts of politicians, famous personalities, journalists and other public figures. But a subscription option, open to anyone prepared to pay, was rolled out earlier this week to help Twitter grow revenue as Musk fights to retain advertisers.

The flip-flop is part of a chaotic two weeks at Twitter since Musk completed his $44bn acquisition. Musk has fired nearly half of Twitter’s workforce, removed its board and senior executives, and raised the prospect of Twitter’s bankruptcy. The US Federal Trade Commission said on Thursday it was watching Twitter with “deep concern”.

Several users reported on Friday that the new subscription option for the blue verification check mark had disappeared, while a source told Reuters the offering has been dropped.

Twitter did not reply to a request for comment.

Fake accounts purporting to be big brands have popped up with the blue check since the new rollout, including Musk’s Tesla and SpaceX, as well as Roblox, Nestle, pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly and Lockheed Martin.

“To combat impersonation, we’ve added an ‘Official’ label to some accounts,” Twitter’s support account – which has the “official” tag – tweeted on Friday.

The label was originally introduced on Wednesday but then was “killed” by Musk just hours later.

Drugmaker Eli Lilly and Co issued an apology after a fake account tweeted that insulin would be free, amid political backlash and scrutiny of the high prices of the medicine.

“We apologise to those who have been served a misleading message from a fake Lilly account,” the company said, reiterating the name of its Twitter handle.

Several misleading tweets about Tesla from a verified account with the same profile picture as the company’s official account were also being circulated on the platform.

“Twitter has, over the past several years, worked to try to improve that [misinformation]. And it seems like Elon Musk has unravelled it within a matter of weeks,” said AJ Bauer, a professor at the University of Alabama.

Musk had said Twitter users engaging in impersonation without clearly specifying it as a “parody” account would be permanently suspended without a warning. Several fake brand accounts, including those of Nintendo and BP, have been suspended.

On Thursday, in his first company-wide email, Musk warned that Twitter would not be able to “survive the upcoming economic downturn” if it failed to boost subscription revenue to offset falling advertising income, three people who saw the message told Reuters.

‘Who buys into chaos’

Many companies, including General Motors and United Airlines, have paused or pulled back from advertising on the platform since Musk took over. In response, the billionaire said on Wednesday he aimed to turn Twitter into a force for truth and stop fake accounts.

Twitter is heavily dependent on ads, and about 90 percent of its revenue comes from advertisers. But each change that Musk is rolling out – or rolling back – makes the site less appealing for big brands.

“It has become chaos,” said Richard Levick, CEO of public relations firm Levick. “Who buys into chaos?”

A bigger issue for Musk might be the risk to his reputation as a model tech executive since the rollout of different types of verifications and other changes have been botched, Levick added.

“It’s another example of something not very well thought out, and that’s what happens when you rush,” Levick said. “Musk has been known as a trusted visionary and magician. He can’t lose that moniker, and that’s what’s at risk right now.”

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