Tweets Get Harder to Believe When Labels Change Meanings

In the 24 hours after Twitter last week removed the blue ticks that have historically served as a tool to identify public agencies, at least 11 new accounts began impersonating the Los Angeles Police Department.

More than 20 are said to be various agencies of the federal government. Someone pretending to be the mayor of New York City promised to create a Traffic and Parking Enforcement Department and cut police funding by 70 percent.

Mr Musk's decision to stop putting checkmarks on people and groups they verify as who they say they are, and instead offer them to anyone who pays them, is the latest uproar on Twitter, the social media giant he has vowed to remake since he acquired it last year. for $44 billion.

The change has shaken up a platform that once seemed indispensable for keeping up with news as it spreads around the world. Information on Twitter is now increasingly unreliable. Accounts posing as public officials, government agencies and celebrities have proliferated. Likewise with propaganda and disinformation that threaten to further erode trust in public institutions. The consequences are just starting to emerge.

Alyssa Kahn, research associate at the Atlantic Council's Digital Forensic Research Laboratory, said Twitter under Mr. Musk has systematically dismantled safeguards that have been in place over years of deliberation and controversy.

“When so many things go wrong at once, it's like: Which fire do you put out first?” he says.

After a public run-in with NPR, which Twitter falsely labeled state-affiliated media, the platform last week removed all labels that had identified state-owned media, including those controlled by authoritarian states like Russia, China and Iran.

That, coupled with the decision to stop blocking recommendations for them, coincided with a spike in engagement for many of these accounts, according to London-based research by the Digital Forensic Research Lab and another organization studying disinformation, Reset.

In Sudan, new accounts on Twitter mistakenly represent both sides of the civil war that broke out there. One account that, perhaps, bought the blue tick falsely proclaimed the death of Lieutenant General Mohamed Hamdan, leader of the renegade Rapid Support Force. More than 1.7 million people saw the tweet.

Twitter's new head of trust and security, Ella Irwin, did not respond to requests for comment about the changes and their ramifications.

Twitter has always been a source of misinformation and worse, but past policies sought to inform readers about the source of content and limit the most egregious examples. The debut of verified accounts on Twitter in 2009 is usually attributed to Tony La Russa, a major league baseball manager who sued Twitter for trademark infringement and other claims after being impersonated on the platform.

Over time, verified accounts with blue ticks point users to official sources and real people. Labeling a news organization as state media indicates that the account reflects a particular point of view.

Copycats became a problem soon after Mr. Musk took the helm in November and offered to sell ticks to anyone who subscribed for a monthly fee. He stepped down after companies like Eli Lilly and PepsiCo grappled with apparently unverifiable spoof accounts that promised free insulin and extolled the virtues of Coca-Cola.

In the past week, Twitter began removing blue ticks from companies, government agencies, news organizations and others who do not agree to pay. It seems many have opted not to sign up, though Twitter hasn't disclosed any figures yet.

Some cheered the change.

“Now you can even find me in searches,” tweeted Margarita Simonyan, editor-in-chief of RT, Russia's state television network accused of rampant disinformation and hate speech aimed at Ukraine. He signed off on the tweet saying, “My brother, Elon @elonmusk, from the heart.”

Twitter's algorithm previously excluded accounts labeled state officials or media from recommendations, reducing engagement. According to Reset, 124 accounts belonging to Russian state media have received an average of 33 percent more views and impressions after the changes, which went into effect in late March.

That includes accounts like Dmitri A. Medvedev, Russia's former president and deputy chairman of the country's security council, who posted a distorted photo of President Biden on Tuesday, calling him in English “brave old man”.

When an account argued this month that Twitter was amplifying Russia's genocidal propaganda against Ukraine, Mr Musk answer disdain: “All news is to one degree or another propaganda. Let people decide for themselves.” (The account he responded to has been suspended.)

The researchers said the sudden change in how ticks were obtained threatened, at the very least, to create confusion. They can also undermine confidence in communication tools during crises such as natural disasters.

The Los Angeles Police Department's main account has a gray checkmark, which Twitter created for “legacy accounts,” but not all bureaus have it — the Hollywood division, for example. In addition to providing a blue tick for $8 per month, Twitter has invited organizations to pay $1,000 to receive a gold token for multiple accounts. For the time being, at least, one extended to accounts of Disney Junior scammers tweeting racist and vulgar language.

“This is going to be chaos for emergency services,” tweeted Marc-André Argentino, a researcher at the London-based Center for the Study of International Radicalization.

Mr. Argentino traced examples showing an account posing as the mayor of Chicago replying to an account posing as the city's Department of Transportation. Another had a New York City government-run account that actually argued with a con man.

“Yes this is funny, let's all laugh,” wrote Mr Argentino. “Now take two seconds and come back to a mass casualty incident in a big city, or natural disaster, or any critical crisis/incident when people turn to official sources of information in times of need & think about the harm this can cause. ”

On Friday, comedian George Carlin's daughter, Kelly Carlin, tweeted an accusation that someone impersonated the account he was running for his late father, even using the same profile photo and claiming to be him.

“HERE IT BEGINS,” he wrote, later complaining after several failed attempts to remove the scammer's account that “Twitter is broken.” The spoof account is still around as of Wednesday, with nine followers.

Josh Boerman, who co-hosts the pop culture podcast, “The Worst of All Possible Worlds,” is the source of an posing account as Mayor Eric Adams of New York, pledging to create traffic and parking departments and cut police funding.

Mr Boerman said he had gone to great lengths to leave clear clues that he was an impersonator. Hers tweet thread including the unrealistic scenario where all the police officers' guns are melted down and sold for scrap, with the proceeds going to the parks department. He created an organization with a ridiculous name: the New York City Porcine Benevolent Association. He promotes his podcast on Twitter, which is relatively small with 1,700 users.

“Almost everyone immediately understood it was a joke, which is my hope – I'm not trying to mislead anyone,” said Mr. Boerman. “The point is that this can be a joke about the current state of networking as well as an opportunity to think about the way media is disseminated and the way we perceive our public figures.”

The removal of the blue verification badge caused “immediate and pure chaos”, but the novelty eventually wore off, he said. His current profile name is “bosh (not mayor anymore).” He said he was careful to confirm any announcements he saw on Twitter using other sources.

“The problem comes when you have accounts that have maybe hundreds of thousands of followers and position themselves as the real thing,” said Mr. Boerman. “Twitter's approach of ‘Well if people pay for verification, of course they're legit' is so stupid I don't even know how to say it.”