When Twitter began adding blue checkmarks after the names of some users, it had a simple purpose: they were there as a benefit to the Twitter community. The checkmarks ensured that the person behind the tweet, whether a well-known actor, an author, or a journalist, was who they claimed to be. It was intended to limit the ability of just anyone to hop onto Twitter, sign up as @TomHanks39872, and start peddling megavitamins or spreading false claims about actions at some studio.
The wide use of Twitter, not as traditional social media in terms of “Hey, look at these cute puppy photos,” but as a primary way in which reporters used the platform to release breaking news added tremendously to the value of Twitter, both as a community and a company. For years, the first place people learned about events, from school shootings to FDA announcements to military movements in Ukraine, has been Twitter. The role the platform has played is unique and valuable. Not because of the one-liners, nasty exchanges, or quirky animal videos, all of which certainly exist, but because of the way Twitter had become a “meta news source,” where individuals, media outlets, and wire services all competed to get breaking news in front of human eyes. It will surprise no one to learn that the first time many writers and editors on Daily Kos learned of many stories was when it appeared on Twitter. That’s not just true of Daily Kos, but of every media outlet.
The previous system of checkmarks served that system by allowing quick verification of sources and information quality. The ease with which disinformation can be propagated through social networks has always been extremely high. The verification system at Twitter represented at least something of a small dike against the rising seas of propaganda.
But now Elon Musk hasn’t just torn down this wall; he’s flipped it on its head. The actions he is taking now at Twitter turn it into a disinformation delivery service for hire. And it’s obvious he’s doing this on purpose.
One of Musk’s first actions in his ridiculous purchase of Twitter was to set up the $8/month “Twitter Blue” accounts that allowed anyone to buy a checkmark. With most of those involved in vetting accounts already shown the door, Musk fundamentally reversed the nature of “verification.” The result was exactly what might be expected.
The ease with which false accounts gained “verified” status was ludicrous, and some of the resulting tweets were hilarious. However, what they represented was a pure reversal of the whole idea of verification.
Previously, the system existed as a service to the community, helping to validate the quality of information posted.
Under the new version, the system exists as a revenue stream for Twitter, offering a pipeline to distribute information for direct cash payments.
This has not gone unnoticed. As The Washington Post reported last month:
Accounts pushing Kremlin propaganda are using Twitter’s new paid verification system to appear more prominently on the global platform, another sign that Elon Musk’s takeover is accelerating the spread of politically charged misinformation, a nonprofit research group has found.
Twitter blue account, $8 a month. Influencing U.S. opinion on the war and providing Republican politicians with false information to use in cutting back assistance to Ukraine? Priceless.
Musk has boosted one of the accounts by replying to its tweets, including one spreading a lie that thousands of NATO troops had died in Ukraine.
Now, following the latest announcements from Musk, things are about to get much, much worse.
This is the Twitter account of the author and senior New York Times war correspondent Carlotta Gall. That account doesn’t have a blue checkmark, probably because Gall never asked for one and her 20K followers failed to rise to a level that caused Twitter’s verification team to check out who was behind the account. However, Gall’s on-the-ground reporting from Ukraine frequently brings her into contact with front-line soldiers and military leadership, and her typical post draws thousands of views from fellow journalists and the public.
This is the Twitter account of Geroman, the unofficial voice of Russian Wagner Group mercenaries in Ukraine. He routinely passes along Russian propaganda videos, claims about “Ukrainian Nazis,” false reports about Russian advances in Ukraine, and claims that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the result of a CIA plan to invade Russia. He also helps spread false claims about U.S. elections and plenty of anti-gay, anti-trans propaganda. Following the recent shooting in Nashville, his account was a clearinghouse for posts that claimed the shooter was connected to everything from Democratic politicians to NATO.
Geroman’s account has a Twitter Blue checkmark because he pays for it.
Starting next month, anyone using the default view of Twitter, the “for you” view, will never see posts from Carlotta Gall. They will see tweets from Geroman because only those with the paid-for Twitter blue checkmark will be visible outside their group of followers.
There are many other unverified accounts that have become among the most authoritative voices on the war, like this military historian, this statistician, and even Oryx, the group which painstakingly tracks every major piece of military gear lost by either side in the conflict. Not one of them has “Twitter Blue.” They will all be made invisible to 99 points, add as many nines as you like percent of Twitter over the coming days.
Musk is promoting this as “the only way” to keep the service from being overrun by bots. There is another way, of course: a dedicated team of community moderators and a dedicated effort to seek out and stop bot farms even before they get going. You may have noticed that Daily Kos is not overrun by bots. In fact, many readers at Daily Kos may go weeks or months before encountering a single example of an obvious promotional post or clear disinformation. The reason for that is simple: a dedicated team in both IT and community moderation shoots down most bot attempts before they can get a single AI tentacle into the group.
Twitter had such a team. Musk didn’t just fire them; he turned their efforts to improve the quality of information on the service into something he could frame as a “crime.” Because, as everyone is well aware, facts have an anti-right bias.
What Musk is doing is simple:
- the previous verification system was a service to Twitter users that generated long-term revenue by increasing the quality of information available.
- the new verification system serves to amplify disinformation by those willing to pay for a voice, reducing the value of information on Twitter in exchange for short-term revenue.
Journalists can, of course, step out of invisibility by paying for Twitter blue, and some outlets and individuals may choose to do this. But it will only put them on par with this.
That’s an account spreading false claims that Russia had captured a German-made Leopard 2 tank with a crew of “Polish mercenaries” on board. It’s a story designed to not only create the impression that Russian military actions in Ukraine are unstoppable, but promote the idea that NATO forces are directly involved. It’s also a story that was published at a point when there were no Leopard 2 tanks in Ukraine.
It’s exactly the kind of “news” that will now be not just available, but preferentially distributed, on Twitter. Because “Dude,” like Geroman, has a blue checkmark.
Musk bought a service that, for all its faults, had grown into a key component of news distribution in the United States and around the world. He’s converted it into a highway for disinformation, with preferred placement available for a price.
That’s not an accident.