Less than a week after Elon Musk finally gave in and paid full price for Twitter, his attempts to remake the platform are already descending into an entirely predictable clown show. Watching him begin to reshape content moderation and launch a poorly considered monetization scheme would be entertaining if their potential effects weren’t so dire, with consequences for Twitter’s employees and users, and potentially the broader society.
Originally reported Sunday by The Verge, a plan to charge verified users to get or keep their blue checks was expected to cost $20 a month. But after widespread backlash on the platform and a poll tweeted by Musk ally Jason Calacanis, in which nearly 82% of users responded that they wouldn’t pay anything for verification, those plans appear to have changed.
Twitter is going to change under the absolute authority of Musk, but it doesn’t look like it’s for the better.
By Tuesday afternoon, Musk had posted a thread on the platform outlining his plan to charge $8 a month instead — part of an overhaul of Twitter’s existing Blue service.
Along with the coveted blue check, Twitter Blue subscribers will be able to post longer video and audio clips. They will also have half as many ads in their feeds and be able to get around paywalls from news publishers “willing to work” with the platform, and their tweets will get priority in replies, mentions and search results.
It should come as no surprise that such a plan could have a number of drawbacks.
Paying for verification will be no problem for celebrities, top influencers and major corporations looking to keep their authentic status on Twitter, but it might be less palatable for some journalists and other people who benefit from having a blue check yet don’t have the budget for verification-as-a-service, especially if their employers won’t pick up the tab.
Right now, Twitter’s verification system has no cost and is designed to ensure users can identify legitimate accounts and know they’re trustworthy. Users need to meet a number of conditions depending on the category they fall in to be verified. The blue check makes it harder for verified users to be impersonated and provides them with some additional tools to manage their notifications since many have a lot of followers.
In addition, the new service could open up verification to scammers who would like nothing more than to get a mark of credibility they could then use to entice more people into their wallet-emptying schemes. Cryptocurrency scams are pervasive on Twitter and common in replies to Musk’s tweets, where accounts frequently try to impersonate him to dupe his supporters. Verified accounts even get hacked and have their display pictures and names switched to mimic those of trustworthy figures in the hope users won’t notice the wrong usernames before they fall for the scams. Paid verification could make this problem much worse.
In his Twitter thread announcing the $8 subscription plan, Musk claimed that giving priority to tweets from paying users “is essential to defeat spam/scam,” and in a reply to Bitcoin whale Michael Saylor, he said, “If a paid Blue account engages in spam/scam, that account will be suspended.” That sounds good in theory; the problem is having it work in practice. Twitter is currently quite bad at quickly responding to scammers and spammers. The Washington Post reported that Musk plans to lay off a quarter of the company’s staff to start, which could further reduce the capacity to police those infractions.
But there are even bigger concerns here, too.
Many liberal and left-wing users may be less inclined to subscribe — passing on the promised visibility perks — given their growing dislike of the bellicose billionaire. At the same time, his diehard fans and the extreme right-wing supporters he’s attracted by embracing a skewed notion of “free speech” may flock to the new service. That would result in posts that are favorable to Musk and the growing reactionary right getting more prominent placement on the platform, which is a particular concern given that Twitter has already admitted its algorithm is biased in favor of right-wing accounts.
That’s just one likely unintended consequence of how paid priority will play out. If history is any indication of what may come next (and it’s usually a good one), there will also be coordinated campaigns to flood search results with conspiracy theories and engage in election interference. Yet the company’s new leadership doesn’t seem prepared to handle them, especially with new limits on the number of employees who can access moderation tools, including those to address misinformation ahead of the midterm elections.
Trust has already been strained on that front. Just days after he took over, Musk tweeted an article by a known source of false information outlining a homophobic conspiracy theory about Paul Pelosi after he was attacked. When Musk finally deleted the tweet, he didn’t apologize. Instead, he tweeted a screenshot of a New York Times article saying he’d shared “false news” with the comment “This is fake — I did *not* tweet out a link to The New York Times!” The comment referred to common right-wing characterizations of the publication as “fake news.”
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Musk has long been vocal about his opposition to the content policies of Twitter’s previous leaders. They’re exactly what supporters of his takeover are expecting him to loosen. Bloomberg News, citing sources said to be familiar with the matter, reported that Musk wants to change the misinformation policy that applies to posts about sensitive topics like elections and Covid-19, and he’s reviewing the hateful content policy with a particular focus on a section that restricts “targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals.” It’s a particularly notable move, given Musk’s transgender daughter changed her surname this year, expressing a desire to no longer be “related to my biological father in any way, shape or form.”
These reported changes will cost him. Major advertisers are already pausing ad spends on Twitter over concerns about Musk’s approach to content moderation, and Sarah Personette, the chief customer officer who managed most advertiser relationships, announced Tuesday that she’d resigned. If the experiences of right-wing alternatives like Truth Social and Parler have shown us anything, it’s that most advertisers don’t like their brands to be associated with hate speech.
Twitter is going to change under the absolute authority of Musk, but it doesn’t look like it’s for the better. Guided by skewed alt-right ideas for reshaping the platform and with the pressure to rapidly monetize users to pay soaring annual interest payments, even his hype machine may not be enough to save the platform from his poor management. But at least some users might stick around to experience the train wreck for themselves.