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The Life and Death of the Blue Check Mark
April 30, 2023

The Life and Death of the Blue Check Mark

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Elon Musk Did Something Remarkable to the Blue Check Mark—Twice, Twitter’s verification process was historic. Then came Elon Musk., Everything wrong with Twitter’s new verification system.

Last week, Twitter started removing blue check marks from previously verified accounts that hadn’t paid the $8 monthly fee for its subscription program. Journalists, activists, and scientists—people who once used the platform to debunk COVID-19 misinformation or share election results—found their checks gone. In their place, the check marks filled the profiles of sycophants complaining that their subscriptions to Twitter Blue were not resulting in more engagement on their posts. The blue check, once a symbol of reliability, became a symbol so toxic that major accounts not only refused to subscribe to Twitter Blue—they didn’t even want it when Elon Musk gave it to them for free.

This a dramatic about-face, because the blue check mark was one of the Twitter’s most effective and useful developments, copied or adapted by other companies as a symbol of verification. It was a quick, easy way for someone to look at a post and be reasonably confident that it came from the user or organization’s actual account, rather than an impersonator with a similar handle. It made not only Twitter but also the internet ecosystem surrounding it a more trustworthy place.

With his changes to the platform’s verification system, Elon Musk has managed to transform the blue check mark: First into a tool for fraud, and then into a mark of shame.

The blue check mark on the Twitter profile was an immediately recognizable symbol. Social media symbols are usually brand-associated; the blue check mark was originally associated with Twitter but later adopted by Meta across its products (Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp) as the symbol for verified accounts, while other platforms have knockoffs, like gray check marks on YouTube. In this way, the check mark went from a brand-specific shorthand to an internet-wide symbol of trust: If Gmail or other email systems adopted the blue check mark for emails from corporate and customer service accounts to prevent phishing, for example, then it would slot in as a symbol of verification in that context as well. Creating a symbol that’s publicly recognized outside of corporate contexts is a coup, but it also doesn’t generate any money on its own.

The blue check mark wasn’t meant to generate revenue; it was a way to address a problem on social media. The verification process was partly the result of a lawsuit by then–St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa after the site failed to take down accounts impersonating him. Users could make accounts and post content that looked like it was from other users. These fraud issues made public figures not want to use the platform, and Twitter wanted to keep those accounts around because of the engagement they generated. La Russa voluntarily withdrew the lawsuit.

Twitter’s original verification system for large accounts, launched in 2009, involved an internal process to verify that the account was controlled by the public figure or organization listed before granting the blue check mark. The notion of publicly visible credentialing wasn’t new; we credential doctors and lawyers and drivers. What was different was doing it for public figures on social media. The check mark allowed verified users to transmit a sense of authority—for journalists, academics, and other not traditionally famous but nevertheless in-the-public-eye people, it functioned as sort of badge of honor and a way to show significance within the field. It was also a way for Twitter to demonstrate to the public figures and brands who brought in money as content generators and advertisers that it was serious about addressing misrepresentation and fraud.

The blue tick wasn’t a perfect system. Some people who had blue check marks used them to impersonate public figures as a form of protest or comedy; those users were usually banned from Twitter and (if their accounts were later reinstated) were not given a new blue check mark. Twitter was protective of verification because it had value to verified users and their followers.

The blue tick was historic, and part of what makes it interesting is that there isn’t an easy historical analogy—mostly because social media is just different. Fraud isn’t new, but the ability for fraud to go viral and global in the way social media misinformation does is new. Further, because social media companies aren’t generating or editing user posts (and aren’t liable for fraud on their platform), it’s different than the editorial standards required of traditional publishers like newspapers. This is one of the challenges of Section 230 protections, and why the protections both make sense (because vetting all content posted isn’t feasible) and cause problems (because there need to be some efforts to curb fraud).

Ultimately, verification worked because if you saw the blue tick, you knew that there was a process behind it—even if you didn’t know the details of that process. Then came Musk.

Before Musk’s takeover of the company, Twitter Blue existed as a subscription service launched in 2021 for limited markets. It included a range of perks, like a time-limited ‘Undo’ button. This sort of subscription model is nothing new, even for otherwise free platforms.

But when Musk took the helm in late October, he quickly revamped the subscription service by tethering the blue tick to it—and thus adding another meaning to the symbol. If you saw a blue tick during the November rollout, then it could be a verified user or it could be someone who paid for the service. A quick glance didn’t tell you if it was real, and a screencap of a post (where you couldn’t scroll over to see ‘this is a Twitter Blue subscriber’) didn’t help.

When the first pay-to-play check marks were available, the problems started immediately.
One of the most visible examples was the fake-but-verified Eli Lilly account, which claimed the company was going to make insulin free. Eli Lilly (and other insulin manufacturers) have been criticized extensively for the high price of insulin—and while the post wasn’t from Eli Lilly, it put the company in an awkward position. Eli Lilly felt it had to deny the tweet, but denying the tweet meant drawing attention to insulin pricing. Forcing a company to admit publicly that it’s doing something the public thinks is terrible is a strong tactic; some people suggested that the fraud hurt the stock value (which would give Eli Lilly a cause of action against the fraudster). Other companies were also hit hard by impersonators; Lockheed Martin had similar issues with its sale of weapons to authoritarian governments.

Over the last week, as Musk phased out the legacy verified checks in favor of ticks only for paid accounts, he created a separate problem, partly induced by his irresponsible leadership and political profile. Buying the subscription means having a badge on your profile; having the badge looks like an endorsement of Musk’s corporate leadership—making the subscription service a public act rather than a private purchase. Even users just subscribing for the functionality look like they’re team Musk.

This was made worse by the fact that Musk decided to ‘gift’ subscriptions to many accounts (LeBron James, Stephen King, the Auschwitz Museum, etc.), making it appear as though they’d paid for Twitter Blue. This is fraudulent, but somehow especially morally grotesque when it involves claiming that dead people (Pelé, Anthony Bourdain, and Kobe Bryant) paid for a subscription.

This whole spectacle is an example of the idea that introducing payments for a good or service can change the thing we’re buying. In some cases, this is because the good is supposed to be responsive to something other than money—like verification of identity, in the case of the check mark. For this reason, the philosopher Michael Sandel argues some goods and services should not be for sale; his preferred example is a Nobel Prize, which should be responsive to achievements in the field rather than monetary considerations. If something can be bought, then it can be hijacked to create the appearance of achievement or (in the case of the blue check) verification. Depending on how that hijacking is used, it can be dangerous to the people who are impersonated. Even if we’re skeptical of the view that it’s morally wrong to sell a blue check mark, it does change the good people are after. To borrow from my friend and colleague, the late philosopher David Dick, those goods are ‘invariably transformable’—meaning they change in character whenever they are exchanged (rather than only changing sometimes, subject to context).

Even when the blue check mark was still sometimes responsive to verification (like during the botched November rollout), the fact that it could be purchased deteriorated its meaning. Now, the meaning is completely different: It signals brand support (for Musk himself, not just Twitter as a product). Once a symbol of verification, the blue check mark may now turn into an internationally recognized jersey for team Musk—and in doing so, kill off a valuable part of the company’s legacy.


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