As Elon Musk’s Twitter yanks blue checks from agencies, confusion reigns


Chicago: People have long used Twitter to stay up to date on tornado watches, train delays, news alerts, and the most recent crime advisories from their neighbourhood police department.

But last week, the Elon Musk-owned platform began removing the blue verification checkmarks from users that don’t pay a monthly charge, leaving governments and other organisations across the globe rushing to come up with a solution to demonstrate their credibility and ward off impersonators.

On Thursday, prominent users including Beyoncé, Pope Francis, Oprah Winfrey, and former President Donald Trump lost access to their blue checks. However, money was also taken from the accounts of some elected officials, official weather trackers, national parks like Yosemite, and significant transportation networks from San Francisco to Paris.

Twitter had roughly 400,000 verified users under the original blue-check system. In the past, the checks meant that Twitter had verified that users were who they said they were.

While Twitter is now offering gold checks for “verified organizations” and grey checks for government organizations and their affiliates, it was not always clear why some accounts had them Friday and others did not.

Fake accounts claiming to represent Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the city’s Department of Transportation and the Illinois Department of Transportation all began sharing messages early Friday falsely claiming that Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive — a major thoroughfare — would close to private traffic starting next month.

A critical eye could spot obvious hints of fraud. The account handles are slightly different from the authentic ones representing Lightfoot and the transportation agencies. The fakes also had far fewer followers than legitimate accounts.

But the fakes used the same photos, biographical text and home page links as the real ones.

The genuine, long-standing accounts for Lightfoot and the transportation agencies did not have a blue or grey checkmark as of Friday. Lightfoot’s office said the city is aware of the fake accounts and is “working with Twitter to resolve this matter.” At least one of them was suspended Friday.

A number of agencies said they were awaiting more clarity from Twitter, which has sharply curtailed its staff since Musk bought the San Francisco company for $44 billion last year. The confusion has raised concerns that Twitter could lose its status as a platform for getting accurate, up-to-date information from authentic sources, including in emergencies.

As a tornado was about to strike central New Jersey earlier this month, a go-to account for safety information was run by the National Weather Service branch in Mount Holly, New Jersey. It had a blue check at the time. It no longer has any checks, though the main NWS account and some other regional branches now sport a grey check marking them as official accounts.

Susan Buchanan, director of public affairs for the weather service, said the agency is in the process of applying to get the grey check mark for government agencies. She declined to answer why some regional NWS branches lost their marks and others have them.

The costs of keeping the marks range from $8 a month for individual web users to a starting price of $1,000 monthly to verify an organization, plus $50 monthly for each affiliate or employee account. But the meaning of the blue check has changed to symbolize that the user bought a premium account that can help their tweets be seen by more people. It also includes other features such as the ability to edit tweets.

Celebrity users, from basketball star LeBron James to author Stephen King and Star Trek’s William Shatner, have baulked at joining — although all three still had blue checks on Friday after Musk said he paid for them himself.

For users who still had a blue check, a popup message indicated that the account “is verified because they are subscribed to Twitter Blue and verified their phone number.” Verifying a phone number simply means that the person has a phone number and they verified that they have access to it — it does not confirm the person’s identity.

Fewer than 5 per cent of legacy verified accounts appear to have paid to join Twitter Blue, according to an analysis by Travis Brown, a Berlin-based developer of software for tracking social media.

Musk’s move to end what he’s called the “lords & peasants system for who has or doesn’t have a blue checkmark” has riled up some high-profile users and pleased some right-wing figures and Musk fans who thought the marks were unfair. But it is not an obvious money-maker for the social media platform that has long relied on advertising for most of its revenue.

While a few prominent users said they would stop using Twitter over the lost check, many public agencies appeared to be staying with the service.

Asked Friday about the German government’s continued use of Twitter, spokesperson Christiane Hoffmann said: “Of course, we are watching very closely what’s happening on Twitter and we continually ask ourselves if it’s right to have channels there and how they should continue.”

Hoffmann said the government was concerned about developments on Twitter in recent weeks and months, adding that the ministries, spokespeople and Chancellor Olaf Scholz now have grey ticks “for which nothing is paid.”

City officials in Minneapolis applied about three weeks ago for a grey check on the city’s main Twitter account and received approval for it Thursday.

Jordan Gildenbach, the city’s digital communications coordinator, said he’s planning to seek the same for other city-run accounts including the health department — which had no check mark as of Friday — but said Twitter’s system of assessing and deciding which accounts qualify “has never really been clear.”

“From an active shooter situation or a weather-related event, or even the more routine stuff like snowstorms, it’s always a challenge even with verification to combat misinformation and rumours,” Gildenbach said. “This is just going to make that harder.”

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As Elon Musk’s Twitter yanks blue checks from agencies, confusion reigns
As Elon Musk’s Twitter yanks blue checks from agencies, confusion reigns
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