After Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter on October 27, the world’s richest man proposed a series of controversial changes to the platform.
In a few days the paid verification change will be done already rolled out in several countries, including Australia, under the Twitter Blue subscription service.
More than just verification
According to Twitter, the blue tick lets people know that bill of interest is authentic. Currently, there are seven categories of “public interest accounts,” such as accounts from government offices, news organizations and journalists, and influencers.
Still, this seemingly innocuous little blue icon is far from a simple verification tool in Twitter’s fight against impersonation and fraud.
In public opinion, a verified status means social interest. It is a coveted status symbol to which users strivelargely because Twitter’s approval process has made it difficult to obtain.
That’s partly because the blue tick has a controversial history. After receiving widespread condemnation for: verifying white supremacists in 2017Twitter stopped the verification process for more than three years.
There’s a fundamental mismatch between what Twitter wants the blue check to mean and how the public perceives it, something the Twitter Safety team themselves recognized in 2017.
But they didn’t fix it. When Twitter resumed systematic account verification in 2021, it wasn’t long before the process started to fail again, with blue ticks distributed to bots and fake accounts.
In addition, the public is still confused about what the blue check mark means and watching it as a status symbol.
Gentlemen and farmers
Musk’s stream-of-consciousness policy proposals may reflect his own preference for interacting with verified accounts. Despite his repeated claims of “power to the people” and breaking the “lords and peasants” system of verified versus unverified accounts, I conducted a data analysis of 1,493 of Musk’s tweets in 2022, and found that more than half (57%) of his interactions were with verified accounts.
Obviously, someone who has verified status deserves their attention. For example, Musk himself considers the blue check mark a status symbol, just like everyone else (except Twitter).
However, Musk’s $8 blue tick proposal is not only misleading, but, ironically, it is likely to cause even more inauthenticity and damage to the platform.
A fatal error arises from the fact that “payment verification” is in fact not verification.
Fact of Fraud
While Twitter’s verification system is far from perfect and far from transparent, it at least strived for the kind of verification practices journalists and researchers use to distinguish fact from fiction, and authenticity from fraud. It takes time and effort. You can’t just buy it.
Despite its shortcomings, the verification process has largely succeeded in eradicating a significant portion of illegal activity on the platform and uncovering notable accounts in the public interest. Musk’s payment verification, on the other hand only checks if a person is US $8. has.
Payment verification cannot guarantee that the system will not be abused for social harm. For example, we already saw that conspiracy theory influencers such as “QAnon John” risk being legitimized by purchasing a blue tick.
Opening the floodgates to bots
On a larger scale, the problem is even greater. It’s hard enough to detect and prevent bot and troll networks to poison the information landscape with disinformation and spam.
Now foreign adversaries can launch a network of 100 verified bot accounts for the low cost of $800. The more you can pay, the more legitimacy you can buy in the public sphere.
To make matters worse, Musk publicly declared that verified accounts paying US$8 gain more visibility on the platform, while unverified accounts are algorithmically suppressed.
He believes this will resolve hate speech and fake accounts by prioritizing verified accounts in searches, replies, and mentions. In any case, it will have the opposite effect: those with enough money will dominate the public sphere. Think Russian bots and cryptocurrency spammers.
Also, remember that the ability to participate anonymously on social media has many positive benefits, including: safety for marginalized and at-risk groups.
Even worse, linking social media profiles to payment verification can do real damage if a person’s account is compromised and the attacker learns their identity through their payment details.
A cascade of consequences
Musk’s ideas are already causing a series of unintended consequences on the platform. Accounts with blue check marks started changing their profile handle to “Elon Musk” and profile picture to parody him. In response, Musk tweeted: a new policy proposal that Twitter deals with impersonation would be suspended unless they specify it’s a “parody”.
Musk’s view on user authentication does not match that of Twitter or the internet research community.
While the existing system is flawed, at least it was systematic, somewhat transparent and with the trappings of accountability. It was also revisable in the light of public criticism.
On the other hand, Musk’s policy approach is tyrannical and opaque. to have has abolished the board of directorsthe “Chief Twit” has all the power and almost no responsibility.
We are left with a poignant image of a vulnerable and flawed online public square: in a world where everyone is verified, no one is verified.