‘He literally has zero clue what he’s doing’: Twitter’s verification purge sparks criticism and concern

On 20th April, Twitter officially retired its ‘Legacy Verification’ feature, removing the blue tick identifier from hundreds of thousands of accounts. The decision, though hinted at for a matter of months, was officially confirmed by Twitter’s CEO, Elon Musk, on 11th April.

As early as November 2022, Musk had publicly revealed that changes to Twitter’s verification system — which previously aimed to distinguish notable public figures who might otherwise be at risk of impersonation — were in the works. “All verified individual humans will have same blue check,” confirmed the business magnate in a reply to a now-suspended user, “as the boundary of what constitutes ‘notable’ is otherwise too subjective.” The result was a subscription model, costing $8 per month as part of the social media site’s ‘Twitter Blue’ service, which provided the user’s account with an identical blue tick. The sole remaining signifier of notability was a brief text pop-up which read: “This account is verified because it’s notable in government, news, entertainment, or another designated category.” In December, this was modified to inform the reader that “This is a legacy verified account. It may or may not be notable.” In the wake of these decisions was a wave of imitations, from an American pharmaceutical company excitedly announcing that “insulin is free now” to a pseudo-Elon Musk lamenting that “my wife left me.”

It was not until 3rd April, however, that Twitter rendered the checkmarks of legacy verified users and Twitter Blue subscribers entirely indistinguishable, following an announcement that legacy verification was to come to an end over the coming weeks. Following this action, which exacerbated fears of malicious impersonation, The New York Times publicly announced it would not pay for its Twitter verification and subsequently had its checkmark removed — although it has since obtained a golden checkmark available to organisations for a fee of $1,000/month. Other legacy verified accounts, however, retained their checkmarks in spite of the announcement, which was apparently unimplemented.

After weeks of delay, the change was finally rolled out on 20th April, to mixed reactions. Many celebrities who had been critical of Musk publicly refused to pay the monthly fee for re-verification. Data provided to Mashable suggests that Musk’s controversial gambit has not been particularly effective; of the approximately 400,000 legacy verified users who lost their blue tick, there was a measly net gain of 28 new Twitter Blue subscribers in the immediate aftermath of the long-planned purge. Because verification no longer meaningfully distinguishes the user from potential impersonators any more than their unique handle, it isn’t entirely clear what the purpose of re-verification would be. The lacklustre sign-ups among ordinary users (which precede this month’s changes) likely stem from a similar issue — if the initial appeal of Twitter Blue verification was that it ordained the user with the oh-so-coveted blue checkmark for which only celebrities had previously been eligible, what is the motivation now that the checkmark does not connote notability?

The implications of Twitter’s verification changes are widespread and the long-term ramifications are only now starting to emerge.

To make matters worse, Twitter fanatics seeking social credit through regular payment have instead found themselves the subject of ridicule and resentment — a campaign spearheaded by legendary Twitter user @dril encouraged followers to go one step further and #BlockTheBlue. Such is the stigma around verification, and its implications for a user’s opinion of Musk’s vision for the social media platform, that several celebrities who found themselves inexplicably re-verified were forced to publicly repudiate charges of Twitter Blue subscription. “My Twitter account says I’ve subscribed to Twitter Blue”, noted horror author and outspoken Musk critic Stephen King, “I haven’t.” In fact, Musk had silently decided to pay for the blue checks of various celebrities, consequently giving them a verification badge which (wrongly) states that they have subscribed to the service and some experts suggest may constitute a form of false endorsement, prohibited under U. S. Federal Trade Commission regulations. The verification badge’s description has since been simplified to read: “This account is verified.”

The implications of Twitter’s verification changes are widespread and the long-term ramifications are only now starting to emerge. At the point of use, the most visible change pertains to user priority. Twitter users subscribed to Twitter Blue have their replies prioritised by the algorithm, a decision confirmed by Musk in March. Consequently, the first visible replies to a tweet will not simply be those deemed most relevant to you (on the basis of interaction) but include a selection of responses from verified users which may have very few likes, if any at all. In some cases, controversial right-wing users whose replies would typically have been dominated by derision and criticism are now able to hide this under a blanket of verified users who adhere to their views — no coincidence, as verification status aligns strongly with political affiliation.

One such instance occurred on 26th April, when mixed martial artist Jake Shields asked his 300,000 followers whether they would “support public executions of anyone who helps a child transition?” The top replies of this now-removed tweet, which flagrantly violated Twitter’s guidelines on incitement of violence, were not — as one might expect — flooded with outrage and backlash but rather a cluster of supporters, notably blue in colour.  “Yep”, read one verified response, among many which supported the proposal. “Public execution is kinda wild”, understated another likewise verified commenter, who was keen to clarify that “I’m not saying I’m against it.” Shields’ account remains up and verified.

The preferential treatment of paying subscribers poses an existential threat to the future of Twitter’s oft-cited role as a democratic ‘town square.’ Those who subscribe to Twitter Blue are, inherently, more supportive of Musk and his vision for Twitter. Tweets and replies complimentary of the controversial investor are therefore much more likely to be found at the top of the replies or recommended on the For You feed. Also on the agenda, confirmed Musk in late March, are changes which would restrict voting in polls to those who have verification.

The ideological implications of these changes stretch far beyond Twitter-specific policy, however. It is an open secret that Elon Musk is more popular among, and more supportive of, the right wing of the political spectrum. Verified users are, therefore, disproportionately conservative and many are even further to the right — suspicious of the mainstream media, hostile towards the LGBT movement, and far more likely to hold (or tolerate) discriminatory viewpoints. Is it any surprise, then, that Twitter’s protection of transgender users has slowly been rolled back, journalists have been inexplicably suspended, and hate speech rates have soared to unprecedented heights?

Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter and his struggle to control it has been plagued with problems, from U-turns to botched implementations of controversial policies. It’s no wonder, then, that a recent tweet garnered over 150,000 likes for simply stating: “he literally has zero clue what he’s doing.” Elon Musk may think he has “freed the bird” but Twitter’s future isn’t so much a calm, blue sky as a tumultuous and unpredictable storm — perhaps it would rather stay inside its cage.

Image credit: Brett Jordan on Unsplash