Elon Musk wants Twitter users to verify payment. It could create a new headache for the company

New York
CNN business

In 2009, after suing Twitter at the time, St. To replace Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa on the platform, the young company introduced a new feature: a blue and white check mark.

The check stated that Twitter verified the accounts of artists, athletes, government officials and agencies, and other public figures. Choice, which started together The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s verification plan was introduced as a safeguard for people at risk of impersonating their accounts and as a benefit to all users, a way to let them know that the information shared by important people can be trusted.

It soon became one of the platform’s signature features, copied by rivals like Facebook, and created a new cultural cachet for those who adopted it. Now Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, wants to overhaul how verification works, with the possibility of changing who gets the coveted blue check mark, as well as creating new headaches for users to spot fake and fraudulent activity 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 verified or follow. The world’s richest man has also used populist language, framing the move as a way to break “Twitter’s current system of lords and peasants” for those with or without the blue badge.

If users buy in, the plan could be a new revenue driver for Twitter, something Musk needs after his $44 billion purchase of the company, which was financed in part with debt. He also suggested that verifying more real human users could help combat the prevalence of fake accounts and spam, which he believed had worried him during his months-long effort to exit the buyout agreement.

The logic seems to run like this: requiring users to pay for verification, using a bank account or credit card, would create a higher barrier to entry for non-genuine accounts. Musk said in a tweet on Wednesday that if accounts verified under his new system commit “spam/fraud/identification” they will be suspended, but Twitter will keep the money! And he said he would create a separate tag that would appear under the names of public figures, similar to how Twitter already identifies government officials and representatives of state media organizations.

But the move could dissuade some important accounts from being verified, making it harder for users to determine which ones are real. And there’s no way it will prevent authentic and bot activity either.

“In fact, Twitter is becoming a pay system, and we know that propagandists, people who are working 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 “Bots.”

“Most of the propagandists that the social media companies are most concerned about, the Russian government, the Chinese government, like the extremist groups, have a lot of resources,” he said.

Today, Woolley said, to bypass Twitter’s verification requirement for users to link a mobile phone number to their account, bad actors “will buy thousands of smartphones and put them on racks … and that’s a more expensive endeavor than paying the $8 verification fee .” In theory, a person could also pay to verify an account and then let a computer run it, effectively creating an automated verified account (or “bot”).

There may be other complicating factors. Users may be concerned about handing over their bank or credit card information to a company with suspected security vulnerabilities, according to a company whistleblower just months ago. In many parts of the world, people do not have easy access to banking services. And many ordinary Twitter users who don’t care about impersonation and don’t care about Twitter “violence” probably don’t even care about paying a blue check.

It’s also unclear what would prevent someone from creating and paying to verify an account fraudulently impersonates someone else, thus undermining the feature’s original purpose. It’s not hard to imagine someone paying to verify themselves as a customer service agent for a particular company and then using the credibility that comes with having a blue check mark to scam unsuspecting customers.

Twitter did not immediately respond to questions about the plan, including how it would prevent such imitation.

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 speech based on who can and can’t afford it. With the new plan, for example, subscribers would get priority in replies, mentions and searches, as well as the ability to post longer video and audio content, while getting half of the free user ads, according to Musk.

“You’re really saying that the free speech of people who pay is more important than the free speech of people who can’t,” said Jessica Gonzales, Free Press co-director of media responsibility, who was part of a civil rights group. Earlier this week, community leaders met with Musk to discuss content moderation and the rise of hateful rhetoric on the platform. “I told him the truth … I think $8 a month is very problematic.”

The proposed subscription update has been discussed by several high-profile Twitter users, including author Stephen King and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. “Lmao trying to sell a million people that ‘spokenness’ is really an $8/month subscription plan,” Ocasio Cortez said in a tweet on Wednesday.

Musk responded to criticism of the plan on Wednesday, tweeting, “To all the complainers, please keep complaining, but it will cost $8.”

–CNN’s Jennifer Korn contributed to this report.