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Musk teased new Twitter verification system. Some blue checks are seeing red

Some experts warn a reported pay-for-play verification system could make information on the site less trustworthy and ultimately devalue the company.
Elon Musk
Elon Musk speaks in Washington in 2020.Susan Walsh / AP file

Critics of Elon Musk’s Twitter takeover say any plan to charge users for identity verification could make information on the site less trustworthy and more vulnerable to manipulation — devaluing the company. 

Currently, notable users can receive the verification for free provided they meet a series of qualifications.

Musk appeared to confirm rumors Tuesday about a plan to charge users to guarantee the authenticity of their accounts.

“Twitter’s current lords & peasants system for who has or doesn’t have a blue checkmark is bulls***. Power to the people! Blue for $8/month.” Musk tweeted, adding in a thread, “This will also give Twitter a revenue stream to reward content creators.”

Earlier Tuesday, Musk responded to a post by author Stephen King, who threatened to exit the service if he were charged a reported $20 monthly fee for his blue check. "If that gets instituted, I’m gone like Enron," King wrote.

"We need to pay the bills somehow! Twitter cannot rely entirely on advertisers," Musk replied. "How about $8?"

Tech investor Jason Calacanis, who at one point was helping Musk raise money for the purchase and jokes in his Twitter bio that he is the company's chief meme officer, has argued expanding verification will improve the site.

"Having many more people verified on Twitter, while removing the bot armies, is the quickest path to making the platform safer & more usable for everyone," Calacanis tweeted Monday.

"These are not the *only* ways to make Twitter safer & more usable, but they will have a quick and dramatic impact," he added.

Jeff Jarvis, a prolific Twitter user who teaches at CUNY's Graduate School of Journalism and studies how information travels in the digital age, worries that such a plan could backfire. He was part of a chorus of voices that said the idea was a bad one — for both users and the company. 

“Every prankster, marketer and scuzzy propagandist will buy a blue checkmark and therefore completely devalue the blue checkmark. And Musk will no longer have anything to sell,” Jarvis told NBC News, referring to the potential for the check to turn into a pay-for-play option. 

About a quarter of U.S. adults use Twitter, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, and its influence is perhaps even larger: Conversation on the service forms the backdrop of the political and cultural debates that dominate the news cycle every day. Much of its value comes from its newsworthiness — the statements made by companies, celebrities, elected officials and the journalists who cover them. And that value relies in large part on the system of verification the company has built. 

James Ball, global editor of The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, also argued against the paid verification plan. In a piece Monday for Britain's New Statesman, he recalled being impersonated by a fraudulent Twitter account before he was verified.

"Without a free way for notable accounts to confirm they were real, it would be easier for fake accounts posing as banks, government agencies or notable people to fool innocent users and spread fake news,” he wrote, adding that the absence of limited and free verification, would turn Twitter into “a hacker’s paradise."

Others said they would welcome the change. 

“I think this is a good idea, and would pay,” tweeted Scott Galloway, a New York University professor of marketing and an active user of the site. 

“I would if ALL money goes to charity,” musician John Michie tweeted.

Some said they would consider a subscription to use Twitter but that it didn’t make sense to do so specifically for verification. On Tuesday, Musk said the new system would give those who paid "priority in replies, mentions & search," fewer ads and the ability to post long video.

Marcus Hutchins, a British security researcher who is prominent on the platform and said on the platform he would “happily pay for Twitter,” but he added, “If it’s about highlighting notable accounts, then allowing people to buy it undermines the point.”

There are reportedly at least 400,000 verified users on the platform. The company, which didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday, launched a $4.99-a-month subscription service for certain perks, but not verification, in June 2021.

The potential verification plan was the latest news about Musk’s takeover of Twitter to draw a flurry of attention. 

The spread of misinformation in the social media era continues to reshape cultural and political dialogue, with many observers warning about consequences if it is left unchecked. 

Musk has fanned the flames himself, most recently by tweeting and then deleting a link over the weekend to a known conspiracy website that published a baseless claim about the attack last week on Paul Pelosi, the husband of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. 

Questions remain about how a subscription verification plan would affect officials and government agencies, including election offices, which use the service to quickly distribute critical information to the public.

Rep. Brad Sherman, a Democrat who represents a district north of Los Angeles, said he didn’t think he would pay a fee to maintain his verification status and that he felt such a deal could amount to a form of blackmail for people in the public eye. 

“He’s really saying that I’d better get a blue check or I’m going to look like some fraudster,” he said. “This isn’t an attempt to recoup costs. This is an attempt to turn fraud prevention into a profit center. Just because he overpaid for Twitter doesn’t mean I should have to overpay for verification.”

Some noted that Twitter’s verification system also serves as a self-protective measure for the company. Tony La Russa, then the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, sued the service in 2009, for example, after a user created a fake account with his name. The next month, Twitter launched a beta version of the verified account feature. 

“The checks improve credibility and the veracity of expertise in the Twitter ecosystem,” Jarvis said. "If Twitter is a miserable experience, people aren’t going to use it, and advertisers aren’t going to want to be there.”

Musk recently sought to reassure advertisers that Twitter would remain a destination that would appeal to them

It’s not clear how much charging verified users would serve the company’s bottom line. 

Sarah T. Roberts, an information studies professor at UCLA who is a former Twitter employee, said she didn’t think it would significantly help the company’s finances. 

“It’s a really weird place to monetize,” she said. “It’s sort of blind to the value certain high-profile users bring to Twitter. And it enriches the experience, and you’re going to ask them to pay for the privilege?”

While she was at Twitter, Roberts was part of a team that helped the company moderate health information. She left earlier in 2022, after less than a year. She said she came to appreciate the research and work that had gone into the company’s systems and said it was foolish to change things without studying them or to do so under the influence of outsiders who had little insight into the company. 

“Twitter has had many, many people working on issues like user interface design and innovation, testing it with user groups, and people who specialize in working with VITs — very important Twitter users,” she said. 

“That’s not to say that new leadership shouldn’t rethink some of them, but it’s a pretty weird way to go about it, to ask random people on Twitter, who are your sycophantic fan base, about these complicated design and monetization plans.”

Roberts said she has heard from many former colleagues still at Twitter who are distressed by the prospect of the company’s mission changing so rapidly and potentially haphazardly. 

“It’s by all accounts a nightmare,” she said. “Everyone is trying to make it through.”