Artificial Intelligence

Twitter’s blue tick was more than a status symbol


On Tuesday, Twitter’s new dastardly daddy Elon Musk vowed to do away with the platform’s verification process. He called it a “lords & peasants system” that he’d democratize by making it available to anyone for $8 a month. Those users would get a verification badge, have their tweets prioritized in replies, mentions, and searches, and see “half as many ads.” 

The problem is, verification wasn’t meant to be a free-for-all. It was meant to weed out phonies and trolls, tell you who on Twitter was a real public-facing figure, and help you decide who to trust. Since its creation in 2009, the verification system has also become a way to manage misinformation. Now all it will tell you is that someone has $96 to shill out, alongside their dignity.

So what does life after the death of a legitimate Twitter verification system look like? And who will be affected most by Musk’s monetization madness?

How did we get from little blue checkmark to social media crisis?

The coveted blue checkmark that is now shorthand for clout and status had somewhat innocent origins. In 2009, celebrities and organizations began complaining about impersonator accounts pretending to be them. At best, this created a PR headache for high-profile people worried about their reputations. At worst, it allowed misinformation to spread. 

Which celebrities were complaining? I thought you’d never ask. None other than Kanye West. Did you know he has always been a loose cannon? Way before his anti-semitic remarks and MAGA allegiance, West, in his all-caps phase, eloquently aired his grievance. “I DON’T HAVE A FUCKING TWITTER!” he blogged, referring to the Twitter account @kanyewest, which belonged to someone else at the time. (West now uses that username but back then, he said he didn’t have time for Twitter.) 

But other high-profile figures weren’t happy either. Now-retired Major League Baseball manager Tony La Russa sued Twitter for violation of the platform’s Terms of Service. That’s when Twitter co-founder Biz Stone announced the beta version of Twitter verification for “public officials, public agencies, famous artists, athletes, and other well known individuals at risk of impersonation,” he said in the announcement. And thus the blue checkmark was born.

Why is everyone talking about their verification status?

Ever since its conception, the verified Twitter account has been fraught with controversy. In 2016, Twitter opened up the verification process for anyone to apply. This unlocked a new level of Twitter discord.

For one, the blue checkmark increasingly became an ego-affirming status symbol that separated the haves from the have-nots. The platform, which was known for being an equalizer where celebrities and normies could digitally rub elbows, was criticized for being classist and promoting the idea that verified accounts were more important than unverified accounts. 

But it also intensified political polarization on the platform. Conservatives accused Twitter of left-leaning bias and prioritizing verified liberal accounts while rejecting or removing verification of conservative accounts. Right-ring figure Milos Yiannopoulos, who was eventually banned from the platform, lost his checkmark for violating Twitter rules (the rules in question were never specified). As the Outline reported in 2017, “verifieds” or “‘blue checks” had become shorthand for the liberal elites among conservatives.

In 2017, Twitter put its verification process on pause, only to bring it back in 2020 — this time with a clarified verification policy that incorporated public feedback.

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But the damage was done. This brings us to the present day where Musk wants to eliminate “Twitter’s current lords & peasants system” by… charging people to verify their account. History buffs, if paying for clout sounds familiar, you might be thinking of the sale of indulgences, which didn’t end well for the Catholic church. 

How useful is a blue checkmark anyway?

Verification was introduced to decrease the “risk of impersonation” for “well known individuals,” and it works as described. Public figures, especially political ones, are not only authenticated by the process, but can be better held accountable by their blue check. Does the system work perfectly? No. Sometimes verified accounts spread misinformation or provide a platform to hateful ideology. But in general, verification provides structure to an otherwise spineless cesspool.

The blue check is crucial to journalists who need to cut through the noise to find sources and share news. To find and speak with sources, I usually search Twitter, then direct message or reply to someone directly to chat. And for this, the little blue icon works wonders: it helps to surface my messages and legitimize my request. For years, I struggled with this approach using an unverified account, and I would not want to go back. But if verification is open to all, then it will become less helpful to me and hundreds of thousands of others.

How will this disproportionately impact people of color?

Any free service that becomes a paid privilege is going to exclude some of its original users. Many simply won’t want to pay. Others, crucially, can’t pay. And that makes Musk’s plan for verification a larger blow to people of color than any other user segment. At $8 a month, verification will exclude writers and other public figures of color who historically make less money than their write counterparts.

Candice Frederick, a senior culture reporter at The Huffington Post, also notes that verification has been an important tool for journalists of color to have their work seen and appreciated in an industry that often affords more opportunities to writers with status from larger publications. You could argue that marginalized writers who may not have been verified under the original system can now find that legitimacy by purchasing verification, but you would be wrong. Buying legitimacy is exactly what keeps people of color out of positions of power to begin with.

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Given the increase in hate speech on Twitter — which rose more than 300 percent within the first 24 hours of Musk’s tenure — paid verification will also make Twitter less safe for people of color. When anyone can pay to have their opinions prioritized and promoted, hate speech is given both a voice and an audience it didn’t have before.

So, should you buy a blue check?

Probably not, and here’s why: Paying for verification makes a blue check worth nothing at all. It’s simple economics; value lies in scarcity. If blue checks become ubiquitous, they lose their power, and you lose your authority.

Don’t let Musk fool you: You won’t be paying for recognition or clout. You’ll be shelling out to help Musk slowly recoup on his $44 billion boo-boo, and you’ll be making the platform even more hellish than it already is.

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