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Checked out: Twitter prepares to cut verification for those who won’t pay

The change, which Musk has said will take place Saturday, is expected to remove the platform’s only public indicator of an account’s legitimacy.
Photo Illustration: The Twitter check mark melting
Twitter's check mark change has security experts worried.Justine Goode / NBC News; Getty Images

It’s the end of the blue check as we know it.

Twitter is set to begin removing check marks from verified users who refuse to pay for the platform’s subscription service, one of the biggest changes to the company’s core product since billionaire Elon Musk bought it.

The change, which Musk has said will take place Saturday, is expected to remove the platform’s only public indicator of an account’s legitimacy. It’s a change that many security experts are not welcoming.

“It’s an information integrity nightmare,” said Jessica Brandt, the policy director for the Brookings Institution’s artificial intelligence and emerging technology initiative. “Blue check marks were originally intended to be signals of information quality, and putting them up for sale is a pretty quick way to destroy that functionality.”

Legacy verified accounts, as Musk has called them, have a blue check mark next to their name. Starting in 2009, the check mark was Twitter’s way of saying it had confirmed that accounts for celebrities, journalists, political figures and brands weren’t being run by impersonators. The company has long struggled with some users’ perception that a blue check was an endorsement and the implication that users who weren’t verified were less important.

In the following years, the check mark also became the subject of some scrutiny for how Twitter handed them out. Others began to view the check mark as something of an elitist symbol. Some conservatives began using the term “blue check” as a way to deride perceived liberals.

Musk has taken a populist view of the issue, calling that verification system one of “lords & peasants.” In November, Twitter implemented a program where users who pay for a monthly subscription to the site can display a blue check mark of their own. Legacy verified accounts can keep their check if they begin paying, but many celebrities and influencers have balked at the idea of paying for a service they long used for free.

As part of the new system, Twitter will also let organizations pay for verification that they can pass on to their employees. Pricing starts at $1,000 a month. But many of the company’s top advertisers and biggest company accounts won’t actually have to pay, The New York Times reported

Twitter did not respond to a request for comment.

Paying subscribers get a suite of additional benefits to ensure their tweets are seen by other users, like receiving priority in searches and showing up higher in their replies than other users. Musk has also said that only verified users will show up in Twitter’s “For You” feed, a stream of recommended tweets that is the default for many users.

Musk has indicated that users paying for a subscription service is necessary for the company to stay afloat. He bought the company for $44 billion last year, and reportedly said in an email to staff last week that it was now worth about $20 billion. NBC News has not confirmed that reporting.

Twitter’s initial rollout of a system that allowed users to pay for accounts in November was disastrous. Paid users changed their profiles to impersonate companies. One imitated drug manufacturer Eli Lily and claimed that “insulin is free now,” causing the drugmaker’s stock price to drop. Researchers have found instances where Russian propaganda accounts have successfully paid for blue checkmarks.

Twitter hasn’t released official numbers on how many verified users have paid for the service, but there are indications that not many are. Travis Brown, a programmer and former Twitter employee who tracks activity on the site through a grant from Germany’s nonprofit Open Knowledge Foundation, has written programming code to track paid accounts. As of Sunday, he said he found fewer than 8,000 legacy accounts had started paying for the service. 

And it certainly seems like some of the platform's most active and high-profile users aren't planning on signing up, including the rapper Ice T, who recently tweeted: "F--- that checkmark."