Photo by: Ilgmyzin on Unsplash
Paid verification badges on social media sites aren’t just representative of corporate greed, but they also defeat the purpose of verification in the first place.
Prior to Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter for $44 billion late last year, users of the platform experienced a divide in opinion. While some held out hope that Twitter would finally allow supposedly previously-restricted “free speech” under Musk’s leadership, others were concerned with the prospective consequences that loosened restrictions for the platform might hold.
When the acquisition went through, Twitter became a subject of controversy. As prominent public figures abandoned the app and Twitter employees quit in huge droves, the platform’s future quickly became uncertain.
But there is no better indication of the dark path that Musk is leading Twitter down than his new paid verification service.
Those on social media accounts like Instagram or Twitter might have wondered what that little checkmark next to certain accounts’ online handles means. On Instagram and Twitter, for example, it’s usually a little blue icon.
This symbol is typically referred to as a verification badge, and until recently, it has served as a sign that a notable account is legitimate and not an impersonation of the entity it claims to represent. Think of your favourite celebrity — anyone could make an account with their name in the handle, even if they need to add extra characters to make it unique. There needed to be some form of differentiation between impersonators and accounts of legitimate notoriety, thus the verification badge was born.
The badge isn’t limited to celebrities, however. Business accounts and political figures are other examples of accounts that might require a verification badge. This way, users know they are getting information directly from the real source, and do not have to fear that they might be following a “lookalike” that is set on spewing misinformation. With this system, all was well. It existed to clear confusion and maintain reliability.
Apparently, Elon Musk disagreed.
Musk believed the previous verification system created a “lords and peasants” dynamic on the platform, meaning that those who have a verification badge are held in a higher regard than accounts without.
But this simply isn’t true. Verification badges weren’t simply for bragging rights or to feel more important than accounts without the badge; their primary purpose was to ensure misinformation on Twitter was minimized as much as possible. With the verification system in place, fraudsters could not create impersonation accounts in the hopes of tricking users, because their lack of verification would denote their illegitimate status. Musk’s idea that the system created a barrier between accounts that left them as “lords” and “peasants” ignores the purpose of verification entirely, and pretends there was a “problem” that never actually existed.
Musk’s solution was that anyone should be eligible for verification consideration, regardless of who they were. The only catch: those who wish to be considered for a verification badge must pay a subscription fee of $10 CAD per month.
Twitter already had a subscription service that added features for users called Twitter Blue. The original version of the service from 2021 already added several features for users, such as the ability to edit recently-published Tweets, access to ad-free news on certain sites and unique app icons. The service was also considerably cheaper, standing at $3.49 CAD per month.
In December, Musk revealed his plan to solve the nonexistent “lords and peasants” issue: adding verification badges to accounts with Twitter Blue (and upping the price in the process). In other words, any account paying for the subscription service had the potential for verification, whether they had 10,000,000 followers or zero.
This begs the question: what is being verified? Now, verification no longer exists as a legitimating mechanism for notable accounts, so what is the point of the blue checkmark? Why have a verification symbol if it doesn’t exist to actually verify anything at all?
The system quickly backfired when users began paying for verification badges on impersonation accounts, meaning that accounts based in parody or misinformation could no longer be easily differentiated from their legitimate counterparts. This is hardly surprising — this is the logical consequence of opening verification to anyone with $8 a month to burn, and shouldn’t be a shock to anyone.
The system was quickly paused as Twitter engineers worked to solve this problem, but one has to wonder: did Musk seriously not see this coming? How is it possible that he could demand such a system be quickly implemented and not foresee this obvious, glaring flaw?
After all, this is the Internet: people love to make jokes and have fun, even at the expense of impersonation and the spreading of misinformation. Ensuring that users couldn’t verify parody accounts should have been one of Musk’s first orders of business. This goes well beyond being a simple oversight — this was straight-up foolish.
The system has since returned with new measures in place to ensure only eligible accounts paying for Twitter Blue can get a verification badge, but the fact that the original purpose of “verification” being destroyed still remains.
Twitter is now full of verified accounts owned by random people, with little to differentiate them from accounts of note. The app has changed the badge for businesses into a gold checkmark rather than blue, and government and multilateral accounts now hold a grey checkmark. But this means the system has only gotten more complicated, with users having to learn the difference between three colours of verification badge — many of which belong to random individuals who pay for Twitter Blue.
The situation only worsened when leaked information revealed Twitter’s alleged plan to charge businesses $1,000 per month to keep their gold checkmark, a claim corroborated by other sources.
If this is true, it means businesses would need to pay $1,000 every month just to prove that they are who they claim to be. If a business chooses not to pay, then their account will not have any evidence proving its legitimacy. This might not be a problem for major corporations, but smaller businesses are likely going to suffer as a result.
Hypocritically, in his quest to end the supposed “lords and peasants” issue on the platform, Musk created the very system he intended to destroy. Recently, Musk announced that Tweets from verified accounts would take priority over those from unverified accounts, meaning that posts from individuals who don’t pay the monthly fee will be harder to find.
Formerly, verification on Twitter existed as a system to avoid impersonation, but Musk has turned it into a service that makes it more difficult for non-paying users to reach a wide audience. He has actually created a systemic divide more analogous to the division of lords and peasants than ever before on the platform, by quieting the voices of those who refuse to pay.
The paid verification problem isn’t just sticking to Twitter, either. Meta has unveiled its plan to follow in Twitter’s footsteps, meaning that users will soon be able to pay for their own “verification badge” on their Instagram accounts. In fact, the service has already begun rolling out in different regions.
Again, this is solving a problem that never existed in the first place, and creates new problems of its own. If anyone can be verified, then the ability to easily differentiate notable accounts from anyone else has effectively been eliminated. “Verification” is literally an inaccurate description now.
Verification may nominally exist on the platform now, but the concept of legitimate verification on Twitter is dead — because Elon Musk killed it.