How social media verification was destroyed by hubris.
By destroying any meaning the Verified badge on Twitter may have had, Elon Musk has taught us all a lesson: Verified status with self-ID must be free, optional, and universally available across all social media platforms. Better yet, the web should have a free, optional, and universal self-ID verification system social media platforms and other tools can use to verify users. If we don’t know who we’re talking to, bad things will happen.
Who is this?
On November 10, 2022, a fake Tweet cut an estimated $15 billion out of US drug company Eli Lilly’s market cap.
The tweet, posted by a newly verified account bearing the name of the drug manufacturer, said insulin would now be provided for free.
The problem: The account was fake. It was impersonating the drug company and had bought the Verified badge for $8.
In the early days of November 2022, Twitter Owner and CEO Elon Musk murdered social media verification for the lols. Lashing out at what he described as the “Lords and Peasants” system of verification, he changed the meaning of the blue tick next to a user’s name from “has provided us a copy of their ID to verify their identity” to “is paying $8/month for a blue check next to their name.”
The result: an immediate flood of impersonation accounts on the platform, and a subsequent erosion of any trust the Verified label might have created on the platform.
Turns out in spite of right-wing conspiracies claiming the opposite, the Blue Tick was not in fact a status badge given to liberals – it was a badge informing users the account was verified as representing who it claimed to represent. You know, verification. Shocking.
In the immediate aftermath of all this, Twitter rolled out a new “Official” badge. Which Elon personally pulled minutes later. Then reinstated because, again, it turns out the Verified badge actually served a purpose and was not in fact a “Lords and Peasants” system.
As I said at the start of all this, Elon appears to be doing 1st year design student back-of-the-napkin iterative design in public, and he’s receiving a failing grade at it. But what do I know, I’m just a university teacher specializing in this exact subject.
Here’s how I imagine it all went down:
Twitter employee, cowering behind a chair: Lord Musk, it appears the blue check you thought was a vanity badge actually serves a vital function!
Elon the Ignoble: Thou darest speak?!? What say you, serf?
Twitter employee, now using the lid of a garbage can as a shield: We need to keep the verified system to prevent impersonations on the platform.
Elon the Ingoble: Heresy! We the King make no mistakes! That’s Official!
Now Former Twitter employee, being led out of the building by HR: Someone is going to impersonate a pharma company and tank their stock!
Elon the Ignoble: ???
The Meaning of Verified
Make no mistake: The Verified system introduced by Twitter and then duplicated by Instagram and TikTok was always a verifiable disaster.
From the initial 2009 rollout as a band-aid to prevent celebrities and brands from suing the platform over allowing impersonation accounts, to the 2016 release of a public application process where applicant accounts “determined to be of public interest” would get the badge, what was on the back-end a Verified ID system was given the public image of a “Verified Awesome by Us” badge.
Due to the inscrutable black box process of Verified, people built myths around the system and started believing the Verified badge gave users powers and prestige. And when people believe something gives others power and prestige, those others get power and prestige, even if no actual power or prestige is bestowed them in reality.
Which is how the right-wing conspiracy theory that the Verified status was only granted to liberal accounts (utter nonsense, easily disproven by who is verified on the platform) wormed its way into the brain of the new Twitter CEO and led him to think of it as a Lords and Peasants system rather than what it actually always was: a verification system.
Not that it matters now. Verified is dead. It cannot be resurrected. It has lost all meaning. Which may or may not have been Elon’s intent all along. Who knows.
The Need for Verification Online
Watching Musk iterating his way to the irrevocable delimitation of the Bird App in real time is a heady, bordering on an out-of-body experience. Gavin Belson masquerading as Tony Stark is either so blinded by hubris he is unable to recognize he has no idea what he’s doing and has systematically fired everyone who does, or hell bent on burning down the global digital public square he spent $44 billion on just to see what it looks like. Either way, the consequences of his folly will impact us all.
The impersonation of a pharmaceutical company making billions off predatory pricing on life-saving products that should be provided at-cost may be a fitting critique of the late-stage capitalist hellscape we’re all living through, but it is also the eviscerated body of the canary in our social media coal mines.
In the near future in the wake of war, famine, or a natural disaster, someone will create a Twitter account impersonating a government or critical aid organization and provide harmful or even deadly misinformation to the victims. Until November 2022, people knew with some certainty if the account telling them to seek shelter, move their family, or send money somewhere had a blue check, they could trust it. That trust is now gone for those in the know. But for the millions of casual users of Twitter who are not aware of Musk’s amateur-dentist-with-a-jackhammer approach to service design, a blue check still means trust, and they will be led straight into the maw of whatever evil paid Elon his $8 monthly identity tax.
The Oligarch of Folly
If we can learn anything from these last chaotic weeks, let it be this: Wealth does not imply wisdom. More likely it implies a propensity towards destroying everything to get what you want.
When Musk started talking about his desire to buy Twitter (only to moments later try to back out of the whole thing), Muskovites (the people who believe their idol can Do No Wrong) celebrated the move claiming it would bring “true free speech” to the platform. In the few weeks he’s been at the helm, he has imposed authoritarian and dictatorial rule on the platform by firing the majority of the staff, banning people and behaviours for personal reasons, and destroying much of the social infrastructure the platform was built on because he didn’t like the way it looked. He seems hell bent on proving himself uniquely unqualified for the job he has bought, and chronically unwilling to accept his own limitations.
Elon Musk destroyed Verified because he didn’t bother to understand it. I shudder to think what he’ll set his eyes on next.