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Twitter’s de-verification debacle, explained

No, LeBron James did not pay for a blue checkmark

Formerly verified Twitter users watched their blue checkmarks flicker and fade out in real-time on Thursday, as the social media company pivots away from legacy checkmarks and towards its paid Twitter Blue policy. Elon Musk, who bought Twitter for $44 billion in November, has been dangling the promise of removing checkmarks from “legacy” verified accounts (a.k.a. people who had a checkmark for free) for months — freeing the social media platform from what Musk has called a “lords & peasants system.”

It’s gone as well as you’d expect, given Twitter’s recent history of chaotic rollouts. Anyone with $8 a month to spare and a phone number to verify their identity can purchase the verified checkmark. People affiliated with Twitter now get a square badge, and there are several other options for government accounts or big businesses, too. The Pope was briefly stripped of his blue checkmark on Thursday — harsh! — but it was replaced with a gray one on Friday, denoting a “government or multilateral organization,” for instance.

Won’t this cause confusion over who is and isn’t real?

The short answer is yes. Almost immediately after the Twitter check finger snap, people started setting up fake profiles and impersonating formally official Twitter accounts. This was particularly troublesome for unverified government accounts, like that of New York City, which was immediately parodied. The official City of New York Twitter posted, saying that it was the authentic account, and another account, with a simple handle and the profile picture displaying the same NYC logo as the official account, responded disputing that it was, in fact, the real account. (The girls are fighting!)

Plenty of other parody jokes have come out of the mess, including a truly gross looking fake New York Times Cooking tweet, sharing a meme recipe of a hand-shaped M&M cookie over Greek salad called “King’s Hand.” Another account popped up impersonating J.K. Rowling. In a now-deleted tweet (later circulated as a screenshot), the impersonation of Rowling said “I want to take this opportunity to apologize for all of the things i have said and done that have caused such material harm to the transgender community [...] I was on Ambien for a really long time and didn’t realize how my actions affected other people or really even where I was.” The tweet has since gotten the poster suspended.

This isn’t the first time Twitter has struggled with verification-related chaos. In November, when Twitter Blue first started to go live, a number of accounts popped up impersonating previously verified, official accounts. This included a Nintendo impersonator posting an image of Mario flipping people off, and a parody of Rockstar’s account announcing a fake Grand Theft Auto showcase.

One of Twitter’s other big oopsies was when it verified a parody Disney account that’s “published racial slurs,” according to Variety. An account named @DisneyJuniorUK got a gold badge denoting it was an official account; that verification service costs $1,000, but Twitter gave complimentary badges to important brands with high follower accounts. The Disney Junior account, however, had less than 2,000 before it was suspended when Twitter realized its mistake.

What is Twitter Blue?

Twitter Blue is a paid service that adds a blue checkmark to your account’s title on Twitter. It’ll also give paid users access to certain features, like the edit button, SMS two-factor authentication, and the ability to construct tweets up to 10,000 characters, for instance. Twitter Blue subscribers also get a supposed “boost” to their tweet rankings, meaning they have higher ranking in search or replies. It costs $8 a month or $84 a year. Any Twitter account that’s existed for more than 30 days can buy a blue checkmark.

The only requirement is to verify a phone number. The original blue checkmarks were intended to act largely as a verification of public figures, a way to prevent impersonation of celebrities, news organizations and journalists, or government entities. The Verge reported that an influx of hoax accounts during Hurricane Sandy, in part, inspired its creation. Now, the checkmark simply means you were willing to pay for it.

Twitter Blue subscribers are labeled with the blue check, of course, but also by a pop-up readable by hovering over the check. “This account is verified because they are subscribed to Twitter Blue and verified their phone number,” it reads. The gray check on an account like the Pope’s reads that it’s verified “because it is a government or multilateral organization account.” The gold checkmarks are relegated to “official organization[s] on Twitter,” which means the company pays a reported $1,000 per month for the badge, through the Verification for Organizations program. It’s free for the top 10,000 most-followed organizations on Twitter, however.

Who is actually paying for Twitter Blue?

An estimated 600,000 to 635,000 people subscribe to Twitter Blue, according to independent researcher and software developer Travis Brown. Twitter has around 450 million monthly active users total, according to reports.

Plenty of celebrities, like basketball superstar LeBron James and writer Stephen King, have scoffed at the idea of paying for a Twitter Blue subscription. The simple answer is that there’s really no incentive for them — as large accounts, they already have a ton of people reading their tweets. They don’t necessarily need that increase. The other “perks” aren’t enough to sway them, either. The verification process is so minimal that it doesn’t mean much, either, to say their account is real; someone else can, seemingly, get a blue check in their place. Several celebrities said they are leaving the platform, or at least considering it, without a more rigorous form of verification.

James and King were two of the more outspoken celebrities talking about verification — or their lack of desire to pay for it. Musk responded by saying he was personally paying for their Twitter Blue subscriptions, as well as William Shatner’s, seemingly rebuffing his previous statements that Twitter Blue would give “power to the people” and stop giving preferential treatment to the Twitter elite.

Shatner tweeted “I accept” to Musk’s complimentary Twitter Blue subscription, while King alerted his followers about the check — that he didn’t pay for it. James hasn’t yet tweeted about verification since the mass removal of blue checkmarks.

Days after the culling of blue checkmarks, though, a number of accounts with large followings noticed their verified status had returned — even if they hadn’t paid up. Twitter hasn’t announced any initiative, but some believe accounts with more than 1 million subscribers are being reinstated with the blue checkmark; Brown, who is tracking Twitter data, said that most accounts with over 1 million followers were marked as Blue subscribers, with around 110 that haven’t had the status restored. (Brown also noted his counts are estimates, but likely “close to complete.”) This includes several dead celebrities, like Chadwick Boseman, Kobe Bryant, Chester Bennington, and Anthony Bourdain. Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who was murdered in 2018, is also listed as having subscribed to Twitter Blue and having a verified phone number.

Since accounts with 1 million followers or more have seemingly been given blue checkmarks, additional celebrities and others have tweeted clarification that they haven’t paid for the service. Neil Gaiman, Chrissy Teigen, Ben Schwartz, shitposter dril, Twitch streamer Hasan Piker, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Auschwitz Memorial, and several others tweeted about the complimentary checkmarks. Several of them, including Teigen and dril, have been trying to shake off the checkmark, and seem to have successfully done so at the time of writing. Dril, in particular, has led a “campaign” called #BlockTheBlue — a meme campaign to block any user user with a blue checkmark. “Blocking them and encouraging others to do the same on a massive scale is the complete opposite of what they want,” dril told Mashable. “Its [sic] funny.” The hashtag was trending on Saturday, and the @BlockTheBlue Twitter account has since been banned.

The haphazard, opaque, and inconsistent system is creating confusion and anger among some Twitter users, seemingly undermining Musk’s stated intention to support “meritocracy” on Twitter.

Update (April 24): This story has been updated to include new information about Twitter verifying accounts belonging to celebrities and public figures.

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