New York (CNN Business) — In 2009, after Twitter was sued by then-St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa for being impersonated on the platform, the fledgling company introduced a new feature: a blue and white check mark.
The check mark indicated that Twitter had verified the accounts of artists, athletes, government officials and agencies, and other public figures. The option, which started with plans to verify the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it was presented as a protection for people at risk of having their accounts fraudulently spoofed and as a benefit to all users: a means for people to know that they can trust the information shared by prominent figures.
It soon became one of the platform’s hallmarks, copied by rivals like Facebook, and created a new kind of cultural prestige for those who received it. Now Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, is looking to change the way this verification works, with the potential to not only change who gets a coveted blue checkmark, but also create new headaches for users alike. when detecting false and fraudulent activities on the platform.
Musk confirmed this week that he is working to launch an updated version of the company’s Twitter Blue subscription service in which any user can pay $8 a month to get or stay verified. The world’s richest man has also used populist language, framing the move as a way to break Twitter’s “current feudal system of who has and doesn’t have a blue checkmark.”
If users buy into it, the plan could be a new revenue engine for Twitter, something Musk needs after his $44 billion acquisition of the company, which was financed in part with debt. He has also suggested that verifying more users, real humans, could help address the prevalence of fake and spam accounts that he reportedly worried about during his months-long effort to get out of the takeover deal.
The logic seems to go something like this: Requiring users to pay for verification, using a bank account or credit card, would create a higher barrier of entry for unauthenticated accounts. Musk said in a tweet Wednesday that if accounts verified under his new system engage in “spam/scam/phishing, they will be suspended, but Twitter will keep his money!” And he said he would create a separate label that would appear under the name of public figures, similar to how Twitter already identifies government officials and representatives of state media organizations.
But the move could discourage verification of certain prominent accounts, making it harder for users to determine which ones are authenticated. And it’s also unclear if it will prevent unauthenticated and bot activity.
“In effect, this is turning Twitter into a pay-to-play system, and we know that propagandists, people who work to spread disinformation and other forms of manipulation through Twitter, are very willing and able to fund their operations. said Samuel Woolley, assistant professor at the University of Texas School of Information and author of the book “Bots.”
“Most of the propagandists that social media companies are most concerned about, like the Russian government, the Chinese government, extremist groups, they have a lot of resources,” he said.
Currently, Woolley said, to get around Twitter’s verification requirement in which users have to link a cell phone number to their account, criminals have “bought thousands of smartphones and put them on shelves … and that’s a much more expensive effort than paying an $8 verification fee.” In theory, a person could also pay to verify an account and then allow a computer to use it, thus creating an automated verified account (or “bot”).
There may be other complicating factors. Users may have concerns about handing over their bank or credit card information to a company that allegedly has significant security vulnerabilities, according to a company whistleblower indictment from a few months ago. In many parts of the world, people do not have easy access to banking services. And many regular Twitter users who aren’t worried about being impersonated and don’t care about Twitter’s “influence” just don’t mind paying a blue checkmark.
It’s also unclear what would prevent someone from creating and paying to verify an account by fraudulently impersonating someone else, thus undermining the original purpose of the feature. It’s not hard to imagine someone paying to verify themselves as a customer support agent for a particular company and then using the credibility that comes from having a blue checkmark to scam unsuspecting customers.
Twitter did not immediately respond to questions about the plan, including how it would prevent such impersonation.
Musk has said his goal in buying Twitter is to bolster “free speech,” but some worry the new subscription option could create a two-tier system of voice, based on who can pay and who can’t. Under the new plan, for example, subscribers would get priority replies, mentions and searches, as well as the ability to post longer audio and video content and receive half as many ads as free users, according to Musk.
“You’re really saying that free speech for people who pay is more important than free speech for people who can’t,” said Jessica Gonzales, co-executive director of media accountability for Free Press, who was part of a group of leading citizens of society who met with Musk earlier this week to discuss content moderation and a recent spate of hateful rhetoric on the platform. “In fact, I told him… that I think $8 a month is very problematic.”
The proposed subscription update has been criticized by several high-profile Twitter users, including author Stephen King and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. “Laughing at a billionaire seriously trying to sell people on the idea that ‘free speech’ is actually an $8/month subscription plan,” Ocasio Cortez said in a tweet on Wednesday.
Musk responded Wednesday to critics of the plan, saying in a tweet: “To all of you complaining, keep complaining, but it will cost $8.”
– CNN’s Jennifer Korn contributed to this report.