A lot has happened since Elon Musk completed his acquisition of Twitter and claimed “the bird is freed” in October 2022 – from mass staff layoffs to reinstating controversial accounts. One of the biggest changes Musk has introduced is Twitter’s updated verification rules, in a series of moves that has sparked concerns about the potential impact for brands and high-profile individuals seeking to protect their online reputation.
Blue-tick verification before and after Musk
Back in 2009, with access to almost 58 million daily users on the Twitter app, many brands were beginning to adopt it as a major channel in their advertising strategies. Twitter offered brands the opportunity to market themselves in a more genuine and informal way than traditional media, injecting personality and increasing brand support and engagement.
But as the platform gained in popularity, fake accounts began to proliferate, impersonating brands and well-known individuals and causing reputational damage. This led to the 2009 launch of Twitter’s Verified Accounts Program, in which genuine accounts were verified and marked with a blue tick as a signifier of authenticity. The original verification process was based on strict criteria relating to how notable, authentic and active the accounts were. Awarded free of charge, Twitter’s blue tick became a trusted way for users to ensure they were reading content from a reliable source, and for brands and individuals to protect their identity on the platform.
The Twitter Blue subscription service followed in 2021, enabling users to pay a monthly fee in return for premium features. Until Musk’s takeover, however, blue ticks remained free of charge and subject to a strict verification process, and were not available as part of the Twitter Blue subscription.
But in November 2022, just a week after taking over Twitter, Musk announced a vital update to Twitter Blue which enabled Twitter Blue subscribers to have a blue tick appear alongside their profile – at a stroke, removing the need for blue tick owners to prove their authenticity with the strict criteria introduced back in 2009.
The fallout from Musk’s changes
Perhaps predictably, almost immediately after the update users began creating havoc on the platform, with many using the easier access to blue-tick verification to impersonate companies, celebrities and even politicians. For just £11 a month, Twitter users were now able to imitate some of the biggest companies. Pharmaceuticals giant Eli Lilly was one such victim, seeing its share value tumble by 4.37% the day after a spoof Eli Lilly account with a blue tick posted a fake claim that “We are excited to announce insulin is free now.”
In response, Twitter released its Misleading and Deceptive Identities Policy in April 2023, stating that users “may not misappropriate the identity of individuals, groups, or organizations or use a fake identity to deceive others” – exactly what happened in the case of Eli Lilly. But following recent mass layoffs, there are questions about how efficiently Twitter will be able to regulate accounts that impersonate others.
Musk’s Twitter Blue update also meant that 400,000 or so legacy verified accounts would lose their verified status on 20 April 2023, with many celebrities, politicians and journalists foregoing their blue tick after only 500 of the 400,000 legacy users signed up. Confusingly, almost immediately after removing the blue ticks, Twitter began reinstating them for free to many celebrity users with large followings, including writer Stephen King, who subsequently tweeted saying that he did not pay to be verified on Twitter, yet has a verified status on his account.
Blue ticks, gold ticks, grey ticks – the confusing Twitter verification landscape
With many users left unsure of what exactly a blue tick signifies, Twitter recently launched a new gold tick, available to businesses who meet the criteria and sign up to its Verification for Organizations subscription service. In exchange for £1,140 a month, businesses can access gold tick verification to confirm their legitimacy, as well as a self-service portal that allows them to affiliate their own leadership, brands, support handles, employees or teams.
However, not long after the gold tick’s release, the issue of impersonation crept in again. On 23 April 2023, a fake Disney account called @DisneyJuniorUK received the gold verification tick, denoting that it was an official account affiliated with Disney. However, a cursory glance at the account’s offensive content and low subscriber numbers made it easy to identify as a fake account, and although the account was eventually suspended by Twitter, the fact that it was awarded gold tick verification revealed flaws in the system and compounded mistrust in Twitter’s ticks.
Twitter has also recently launched a grey tick for government and multilateral organisations and officials, as well as introducing new (albeit limited) criteria for blue tick verification – although how well it will ensure the criteria are met before awarding a blue tick is yet to be seen.
It is too early to say whether the new ticks and changes to policy will restore trust in Twitter’s verification methods, or merely result in further confusion and suspicion. But for users of the platform, ensuring tweets they read are coming from a reliable source is more complicated than ever before – and for many, taking the time to work out whether an account is legitimate or not is a task too far. The risk remains that users take content on Twitter at face value, whether it is from an authentic account or not. As the Eli Lilly case demonstrates, the cost of this to businesses can be dear.
Enter the challengers
Former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey has been making headlines for launching a new social media app that could rival Twitter. Although it is currently operating on an invite-only basis, Bluesky Social has already gained popularity among journalists and celebrities attracted by its aim to “bring back the openness and creativity of the early web”.
Whether Bluesky can grow to rival Twitter remains to be seen, and previous contenders have had limited success. Clubhouse, an audio discussion app that once held the record for being the fastest-growing social media app in history, has now dropped in popularity, with the company reportedly set to lay off half its workforce and focus on a “reset”. With bigger platforms like Twitter and Facebook developing their own audio discussion features, Clubhouse has lost its unique selling point, and its popularity has been further affected by the proliferation of racism and misogyny that has been allowed to take hold on the app.
Another competitor is microblogging service Mastodon. A decentralised platform, Mastodon describes itself as a “federated network which operates in a similar way to email”, allowing users to communicate using messaging services. Founded in 2016, Mastodon enjoyed a recent boost in popularity when Musk took over Twitter, doubling its user base. It was unable to sustain this, though, and active users have now fallen by more than a million.
With challenger apps failing to offer the same lucrative advertising and brand-building opportunities as the likes of Twitter and Instagram, the search is still on for a platform that meets meet the needs of both users and brands.
What lies ahead for Twitter
The longer-term impact on the changes to Twitter’s verification programme remain to be seen, and it will be interesting to see how many brands stick with Twitter. But whether they remain on Twitter or not, brands should ensure they have an effective monitoring strategy in place, enabling them to react promptly if a fake account or damaging tweet is created. While monitoring has been made more difficult by Twitter’s recent API change, it is more important than ever in light of the changes to verification and the uncertainty over how effectively they are being monitored and controlled.
Looking ahead, the coming months will be challenging for Twitter as brands reassess their relationship with the platform following the changes. We will be keeping a close eye on how Twitter continues to update its verification policies (and the implications for businesses and individuals looking to protect their online reputation), and how alternative platforms develop to become more competitive.