Twitter moved to curb fake accounts that have proliferated since Elon Musk’s takeover, suspending sign-ups for a new paid checkmark system and reinstating a gray “official” badge on some accounts.
The U-turn was the latest of a string of chaotic developments at the social network, which has lurched back and forth on the question of account verification since Musk’s $44 billion buyout late last month.
The @TwitterSupport account tweeted early Friday that a gray check mark indicating an “official” account was coming back, only days after it was introduced—then almost immediately scrapped.
“To combat impersonation, we’ve added an ‘Official’ label to some accounts,” the profile announced.
The rollout of the label appeared inconsistent: it appeared briefly then disappeared from the network’s own account, @Twitter.
By Friday morning, the firm had also disabled sign-ups for Twitter Blue, the feature touted by free-speech proponent Musk as bringing “power to the people” by offering ordinary users a verified blue tick—until then reserved for prominent accounts—for $8 per month.
An internal memo for Twitter staff, obtained by US media including The Washington Post, confirmed the feature had been temporarily disabled to “help address impersonation issues.”
In introducing the paid blue-check verification system, Musk had warned that Twitter would suspend fake accounts not clearly marked as parody.
But accounts impersonating public figures and businesses had continued to spread—with NBA star LeBron James and former British prime minister Tony Blair among those targeted.
US drugmaker Eli Lilly was forced to issue an apology Thursday after a fake account—stamped with a purchased blue tick—tweeted that insulin was to be made available for free.
The fake account was removed, and the company put out a statement of apology.
There are steps people can take to determine whether a Twitter account with a blue checkmark is authentic, including checking the account’s handle, creation date, and how many followers it has—and noting who is following it.
For example, one account purported to show NBA star Lebron James requesting a trade from his team. James’ authentic handle—@KingJames
—was created in 2009 and has more than 52 million followers. These include other NBA players and the Los Angeles Lakers, his team.
But the account that impersonated him used the handle @KINGJamez, came online in November 2022 and had fewer than 200 followers, according to archived captures.
Twitter users can click a profile’s badge to see whether the account paid for it. The pop-up on paid accounts reads: “This account is verified because it’s subscribed to Twitter Blue.”
For accounts verified for notability, it says: “This account is verified because it’s notable in government, news, entertainment, or another designated category.”
Government agencies and public figures often list Twitter information on websites and other platforms, such as Facebook.
Dan Evon, senior manager of education design at the non-profit News Literacy Project, said people can always “perform a logic check.”
“Many of these impostor accounts are posting overtly inflammatory messages,” Evon said. “If the account is posting something newsworthy, has it made the news?”
The new ease of obtaining a blue badge makes media literacy more crucial than ever, as the new system could open the door to disinformation from accounts posing as government leaders and agencies, health officials, weather channels, financial advisors and more.
“This change opens so many possibilities for bad actors that it’s going to be difficult for fact-checkers to keep up,” Evon added.
The turmoil at Twitter has raised concerns about the potential for serious damage, should nefarious actors successfully pose as official representatives of powerful companies or government entities.
And the disarray—which saw two more top security executives quit on Thursday—drew a rare warning from the Federal Trade Commission which said it was tracking the developments with “deep concern.”
The same day, Musk informed Twitter employees the site was burning through cash dangerously fast, raising the specter of bankruptcy if the situation was not turned around.
The warning came a week after he fired half of Twitter’s 7,500 employees.