The great Twitter tire fire continues. When last we checked in on Elon Musk's newest moves to make previously popular social network Twitter into a far-right hellsite of disinformation and petty scams, he was picking a weird fight with NPR while intentionally sabotaging the site API that government entities use to automatically push out everything from tsunami warnings to mass transit updates.
But it had been at least a few weeks since Musk last humiliated himself in truly spectacular fashion. That streak is now over. This past weekend, Musk screwed up so spectacularly that it carved out a 25-foot deep failure crater, and we aren't talking about the rocket. On April 20 (4/20, because Musk is a man-child), Musk finally made good on his threat to remove blue-check "verified" status from every Twitter user who wasn't willing to pay him $8 a month to join Musk's new, no-verification-needed blue check program. It was an immediate disaster. A complete wreck.
It was such a disaster, in fact, that Musk was quickly forced to backtrack from his whole theory of what his blue-check program was supposed to be: leveling the playing field between the "elites" of the site and the (mostly alt-right) common rabble.
For a mere $8 a month, Musk suggested, you could become important. Eight dollars would elevate your voice above that of Twitter's other users. Eight dollars a month would be the cost of voting in certain polls. For $8 a month, your account would stand as the equal of accounts by The New York Times, or writer Stephen King, or athletes like LeBron James. Actually, more than equal, as blue check marks get top placement in the replies of any Twitter thread. It would be the Cool Club, and no matter how skeevy your opinions or how gross your beliefs, there was a seat reserved for you.
Alas, the first signs this plan was going to fall apart were early on when it became evident that by “you,” Musk primarily meant his far-right allies, who were the site’s most notorious far-right figures, as well as accounts previously banned for racism, white supremacism, violent threats, and hoax promotion. The $8 a month club gained them elevated access to attack the same people Musk himself didn't like, and there would be nothing those "elites" could do about it!
Except there was, and on April 20 Elon Musk discovered what it was. High-profile accounts, many of them "elites" who Musk previously sparred with, decided they didn't want to be associated with Musk's new club for Important Racists. Musk took their verified status away—and everyone either rejoiced or refused to give a damn. Everyone.
Musk's screw-up, from the beginning, was to make an $8 a month program for "better" Twitter service an ideological stand. Musk has remained, after purchasing Twitter, the same eager troll he was beforehand. He makes tittering little jokes with far-right figures, spreads pandemic disinformation, attacks the far-right's perceived foes, and sometimes works to silence them. His politics are far-right. Giving him $8 a month to support his vision of a more explicitly far-right Twitter quickly became a political statement rather than an effective way for prominent users—the ones that drove the bulk of Twitter’s engagement—to protect their identities from trolls, grifters, and scammers.
Suffice it to say, very few of the most popular or recognizable people on the planet want to pin their own brands to Elon Musk. Nor do any of them need the supposedly enhanced visibility of an $8 account to reach those they want to reach. Verily, nearly half a million legacy "elites" told Musk to pound sand.
There you go, then. Elon's new blue-check subscription service was a massive flop, and the sudden removal of nearly half a million blue-checks suddenly made it crystal clear to Twitter's user base that the blue-check club going forward was going to be populated almost entirely by right-wing weirdos. There would be no hanging out with Stephen King or LeBron James; your fellow blue-checks would instead be a few notorious racists and jokes from (checks notes) influential wag "catturd."
In fact, by so clearly labeling the worst of Twitter’s worst people, it spurred a genius #BlockTheBlue backlash, in which people gleefully banned the blue-check trolls that now populated the top of every single prominent Twitter thread (like those of actual celebrities announcing their refusal to pay for what was now a worthless mark).
The visible unpopularity of the program wasn't just embarrassing for Musk. It's an existential threat to the program’s viability. Musk sold the subscription service as a way to become one of the site's Important People without merit; if all the Important People didn’t just stay off the program, but mocked it, only the most diehard of Musk loyalists would be eager to sign up for that.
As the collapse of the program became self-evident, third parties had already begun working on automated #BlockTheBlue plugins that would systematically block all checkmarks. So Musk immediately set out to salvage the reputation and very existence of the $8 club—by forcing Important People to be in it whether they liked it or not. And by "immediately," we mean "by afternoon."
Musk at first claimed he was paying the subscription fees for William Shatner, Stephen King, and LeBron James himself; King in particular had mocked Musk's $8 subscription plans, so the Musk move was initially seen as another act of petty trolling. That trolling reached absurd levels when Musk was outtrolled by popular Twitter troll Dril. Having himself mocked paying for the checkmark to his 1.8 million followers, Musk thought it’d be a good idea to slap a blue checkmark on his account:
What ensued was a game of cat and mouse. Dril discovered that the blue checkmark would disappear if he changed his name. So he did so. Musk slapped a new checkmark back on. Dril changed it again. This went back and forth several times, making it clear that either Musk or some pitiful employee of his was manually monitoring Dril’s account to keep slapping the checkmark back on. That is, until this tweet.
Similarly, noted Musk critic Matt Binder, previously banned from Twitter by Musk for writing a story about the account that tracked his private plane, was hit with his own blue checkmark after laughing at the lack of uptake. Not only did this prove that Binder lived rent-free in Musk’s head, but in his infinite wisdom, Musk had turned his blue check mark into a punishment.
All that trolling still didn’t solve the problem of the tainted checkmark. So two days later, he backtracked from his plan to require $8 subscription fees from top site accounts and celebrities, and backtracked hard. On Saturday, Twitter began imposing free blue-check subscriptions to accounts with 1 million or more followers en masse. Twitter's most popular users were now hostages both propping up the credibility of the blue-check system as well as human shields standing between an auto-block feature and Elon's pay-to-play troll brigades.
From living people to the long-dead, somebody in Twitter headquarters unleashed a script to forcibly automatically subscribe the most popular "legacy" accounts into Musk's new club. Perhaps the most egregious error on Twitter's part was that despite their unwilling entry into Musk's new Kool Kids Klub, the informational messages users saw associated with the accounts claimed the accounts had paid to subscribe and verified the purchase with a phone number. Nope.
The result? Chaos.
Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, assassinated Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, Kobe Bryant, Chadwick Boseman, and other famous deceased people allegedly purchased their own subscriptions as well. A few of the newly claimed subscriptions, however, are particularly loathsome.
The Saudi monarchy is Twitter's second-largest shareholder.
There's also a small possibility Musk may be running afoul of laws against false advertising. Twitter's informational messages falsely claimed a great number of celebrity figures are paying money for a product they, in many cases, have explicitly condemned. That's a bit dodgy, even beyond the question of whether Musk is reanimating dead celebrities for the sake of boosting subscription numbers.
What Musk's move did most, however, is expose the numerous fundamental flaws in his supposed moneymaking vision for the site. He could offer no compelling reason why already popular posters should pay him for features they were uninterested in. The removal of existing security features protecting brands and individuals alike from impersonation, coupled with a system that once again became overrun with brand-damaging impersonators, was seen as an overt attempt at shakedown. And, again, his own onsite behavior made the subscription program a referendum on Musk personally.
In a matter of days, the blue check became precisely what Musk's critics claimed it would become: a sign of juvenile fanboyism in support of the site's owner-troll. Musk had to bring "verified" blue-checks back (but only on the biggest accounts), and he scrambled to do it. Musk's $8 program is nothing but a smoking crater if the sigil designates “only assholes beyond this point.” And it would be catastrophic to the program if browser extensions began to proliferate that would automatically block Musk's $8 subscribers to Twitter users who didn't want to see them.
That was precisely what was in danger of happening, given the unhinged repulsiveness of the $8 users buying their way to the top of tweet replies.
Those who paid for blue check status–the aforementioned motley crew of fanboys, wannabes, and the performatively stupid–were also soon outraged that the "celebs" of the site were suppressing their "free speech" by ... not wanting to be associated with them.
Musk launched his blue check unverified subscription service, convinced nobody except his own fans to join it, stripped blue check status from everyone else, and then was forced to immediately give the site's most popular and influential posters free blue check status over their own objections so that users could not automatically block all blue checks and be done with it.
Musk instituted a system by which the most dedicated spammers, trolls, incels, racists, and the rest of the internet's least popular people can pay to play their way into becoming the featured "content" of the Musk hellsite. He's made the blue check synonymous with "a person whose opinions are so deeply unpopular that they could only receive attention by paying for it." He's made it toxic.
Here's a tip: It’s too late. Much, much too late.
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