Confusion as Musk’s Twitter yanks blue checks from agencies

AP, Friday 21 Apr 2023

Twitter has long been a way for people to keep track of tornado watches, train delays, news alerts or the latest crime warnings from their local police department.

Elon Musk s move to strip unpaid blue ticks from Twitter users has begun AFP

But when the Elon Musk-owned platform started stripping blue verification checkmarks this week from accounts that don’t pay a monthly fee, it left public agencies and other organizations around the world scrambling to figure out a way to show they’re trustworthy and avoid impersonators.

High-profile users who lost their blue checks Thursday included Beyoncé, Pope Francis, Oprah Winfrey and former President Donald Trump.

But checks were also removed from accounts for major transit systems from San Francisco to Paris, national parks like Yosemite and official weather trackers.

Twitter had about 300,000 verified users under the original blue-check system. In the past, the checks meant that Twitter had verified that users were who they said they were.

While Twitter is now offering gold checks for “verified organizations” and gray checks for government organizations and their affiliates, it was not always clear why some accounts had them Friday and others did not.

A number of agencies said they were awaiting more clarity from Twitter, which has sharply curtailed its staff since Musk bought the San Francisco company for $44 billion last year.

The confusion has raised concerns that Twitter could lose its status as a platform for getting accurate, up-to-date information from authentic sources, including in emergencies.

As a tornado was about to strike central New Jersey earlier this month, a go-to account for safety information was run by the National Weather Service branch in Mount Holly, New Jersey.

It had a blue check at the time. It no longer has any check, though the main NWS account and some other regional branches now sport a gray check marking them as official accounts.

Susan Buchanan, director of public affairs for the weather service, said the agency is in the process of applying to get the gray check mark for government agencies. She declined to answer why some regional NWS branches lost their marks and others have them.

The costs of keeping the marks range from $8 a month for individual web users to a starting price of $1,000 monthly to verify an organization, plus $50 monthly for each affiliate or employee account.

But the meaning of the check has changed to symbolize that the user bought a premium account that can help their tweets be seen by more people. It also includes other features such as the ability to edit tweets.

Celebrity users, from basketball star LeBron James to author Stephen King and Star Trek’s William Shatner, have balked at joining — although all three still had blue checks on Friday after Musk said he paid for them himself.

For users who still had a blue check, a popup message indicated that the account “is verified because they are subscribed to Twitter Blue and verified their phone number.” Verifying a phone number simply means that the person has a phone number and they verified that they have access to it, it does not confirm the person’s identity.

The official Twitter account of the New York City government, which earlier had a blue check, tweeted on Thursday that it was “the only account for @NYCGov run by New York City government” in an attempt to clear up confusion.

Fewer than 5% of legacy verified accounts appear to have paid to join Twitter Blue as of Thursday, according to an analysis by Travis Brown, a Berlin-based developer of software for tracking social media.

Musk’s move to end what he’s called the “lords & peasants system for who has or doesn’t have a blue checkmark” has riled up some high-profile users and pleased some right-wing figures and Musk fans who thought the marks were unfair.

But it is not an obvious money-maker for the social media platform that has long relied on advertising for most of its revenue.

After previously raising concerns about the loss of verification, an emergency management agency in the state of Washington was granted a gray check this week.

“Given that anyone can now buy a blue checkmark, we’ll be monitoring it much more closely to ensure bad actors aren’t creating fake accounts under our name but we still find it to be a valuable tool to share important, life-safety information especially during an emergency,” said Karina Shagren, communications director for the Washington Emergency Management Division.

Shagren said little will change about the way the state agency uses Twitter to disseminate information about natural disasters, severe weather and retweet messages from other government agencies on similar topics.

“With that said, we’ve been doing this long before Twitter existed,” Shagren said. “So for us, it continues to be just one tool that we use. We still encourage people to sign up for emergency alerts on their phone, pay attention to traditional media.”

The agency also began encouraging their Twitter followers in November to get savvier about double-checking the source of information.

In a message posted Thursday on the WA Emergency Management account now bearing a grey checkmark, the agency again advised people: “In a crisis, we recommend more than ever you doublecheck your sources you see on Twitter before hitting that retweet button. Make sure you’re seeing real accounts, not trolls, spammers or robots.”

This article was originally published by The Associated Press (AP).