The real cost of the blue check: Twitter/X verification and what It means for combatting online misinformation

Twitter, now known as “X” (but for simplicity, let’s stick with Twitter here), stands as one of the largest social media platforms today. It boasts a user base of over 556 million users (data reportal), about 7% of all people on Earth. 237 million of those are monetisable daily active users (Statista). It is reported that approximately 48% of Twitter users use the platform to get news (Shepherd 2023), meaning that many important topics, such as politics, religion and current affairs are regularly debated there (see Vis 2012, Broersma and Graham 2013 and Colleoni et al 2014). While the increased activity on the platform is good for user engagement, the sheer volume of information flows has brought with it misinformation which has become rampant. It has become increasingly difficult to evaluate facts and verify information due to the vast amounts of news and opinions.

The emergence of misinformation on the platform, led to the introduction of the “blue check” as a feature to help distinguish public figures and reputable outlets from impostor accounts and to tackle the spread of misinformation. Users and accounts which had a blue check were verifiable which served as a visual marker of credibility and trust on the platform. Over time the blue checkmark became a coveted status symbol, indicating to users that an account is authentic, notable, and trustworthy and that it is prominent enough to warrant this distinction. However, in 2023, Twitter made a shocking announcement under new CEO and tech billionaire Elon Musk. The platform would alter the purpose of blue checkmark, making it a paid add-on feature.

For combating misinformation online, the blue checkmark was an essential tool for identifying trustworthy sources of information on the platform. However, Elon Musk ridiculed the blue checkmark, stating that it had become a symbol of status rather than trust; calling it a system of “lords and peasants.” What might Twitter’s new verification policy mean for the media ecology of online misinformation? In this blog post, we’ll explore the importance of verification for establishing trust on social media, summarise Twitter’s changes to its verification policy, analyse the potential implications of these changes for combating misinformation, especially in a big election year for Africa like 2023 and discuss alternative methods for promoting credible information on the platform.

The value of verification

The blue verification check mark has served as a visual marker of credibility and trust on the platform for many years. In order for a user to receive the blue check, they had to go through a verification process which would confirm that an account was authentic and belonged to the person or entity it claimed to represent. Certain criteria had to be met, particularly, one had to be active, notable and active (see legacy verification policy). In addition, the account had to fall into one of several categories, including government, brands, organisations, news organisations, entertainment, sports, or activists.

To get verified, users had to send Twitter a request detailing their account and identity. A government-issued ID or other official documents, as well as links to other social media profiles or websites, were examples of the types of information provided. In addition, Twitter was tasked with examining each individual request and subjecting approved accounts to continual review to ascertain that they remain eligible. 

Generally, verified Twitter accounts are seen as more trustworthy than their unverified counterparts, which can aid in the fight against misinformation. When a user sees the blue checkmark next to an account name, they know that the account has been verified by Twitter and that the content they post is legitimate. This sense of trustworthiness is crucial in the fight against misinformation, since fake or unverified accounts often pose as credible ones in order to disseminate their false narratives. Twitter’s ability to aid users in making more informed judgments about the content they consume and share depends on the platform’s ability to clearly identify verified accounts. However, it is important to remember that even verified accounts can distribute misinformation, so the blue checkmark was a general aid to address misinformation, not a complete solution.

Twitters verification U-turn

In April 2023, Twitter ended its legacy verification system that gave blue check marks to accounts it had determined were authentic and in the public interest. According to the new guidelines published on the Twitter website, accounts that were verified under the previous criteria (active, notable, and authentic) will not retain a blue checkmark unless they are subscribed to Twitter Blue, a new opt-in, paid subscription. The new guidelines include more granular and defined categories for verification badges. The move follows criticism for the previous verification system which was slated for being opaque and arbitrary. Therefore in addition to paying the prescribed $8/month or $84/year, the blue verification check is now available to ANY user that passes the following criteria:


The new Twitter guidelines for the verification check are:

Completeness: Your account must have a display name and profile photo

Active use: Your account must be active in the past 30 days to subscribe to Twitter Blue

Security: Your account must be older than 30 days upon subscription and have a confirmed phone number

Non-Deceptive:

  • Your account must have no recent changes to your profile photo, display name, or username (@handle)
  • Your account must have no signs of being misleading or deceptive.
  • Your account must have no signs of engaging in platform manipulation and spam.

A summary of the new twitter guidelines for account verification. (Source: Twitter).

While Twitter states that the new criteria is necessary to “maintain the integrity of the platform,” the CEO is also on record stating that the new features are also profit driven as Twitter looks to boost its revenue (CNBC). Although both statements can be true, the seeming willingness to trade public trust for financial gain calls into doubt Twitter’s commitment to upholding the truth and protecting free expression.

It is currently unclear how these modifications may affect efforts to counteract misinformation on Twitter. However, the opportunities and threats presented by the new verification procedure are briefly summarised in the pros and cons below.

Pros and cons of the verification policy

The main pros of the new approach are that firstly, the new verification policy challenges the perception that verified accounts are automatically trustworthy. Now that more people are aware that the verification check is part of a package deal, this could help to combat misinformation on Twitter by encouraging users to be more critical of information they consume on the platform, and this could ripple to other platforms that employ the same verification mark. The change in policy can also encourage accounts to actively maintain their credibility through consistent, high-quality content and engagement with their followers. This could ultimately lead to a more vibrant and trustworthy Twitter community.

However, the influence of the blue verification check is undeniable. The previous system has been in operation for more than 10 years. It will be a while before every user fully understands the implications of the new policy. Meanwhile older assumptions about verified sources will make it harder to identify blatant misinformation. This could be particularly problematic for journalists and other professionals who rely on Twitter for news and information. For example, in our mid-year report on “Resisting information disorder in the Global South,” one of our preliminary findings are that African newsrooms generally do not have budgets as big as their western counterparts and so rely on Twitter and other social media platforms to ‘see’ what is going on in the public (Access mid-year report here). Additionally, without the blue checkmark, users will need to rely on other signals to determine whether an account is authentic and trustworthy, such as the account’s follower count, tweet history, or links to other credible sources. Even then, these indicators are not foolproof as even followers and automated follower engagement can be bought nowadays. The new policy could also reduce the incentive for accounts to seek verification in the first place. The cost coupled with the more rigorous process means that there may be less of a perceived benefit to being verified, which could lead to fewer accounts going through the verification process. This could ultimately make it harder for Twitter to promote credible sources of information and could make the platform more susceptible to misinformation.

Alternative methods for combating misinformation

Now that the old verification policy is no more, what now? What does this mean for combatting misinformation? There are a few other approaches to combating misinformation on the platform.

Firstly, users and public interest groups can take on a more proactive approach in regulating information on the platform. For example, independent fact-checkers, journalists, or other credible sources of information can play a more proactive role.

Secondly, the platform can take on a more active role in flagging false information. Twitter has actively tried to flag certain tweets by using warning labels, including ones that indicate that a tweet contains disputed information, manipulated media, or potentially harmful information. Flagging false information can help users become more aware of the potential for misinformation on Twitter and make more informed decisions about which information to trust. Twitter fact-checks information by working closely with organisations such as the Associated Press and Reuters to surface their fact checks in Twitter Moments, trends and “other surfaces within the Twitter product where it could be relevant,” according to a press release from the AP. Twitter has also launched its Birdwatch program, which allows users to fact-check tweets.

Another more radical intervention would be to promote decentralised social networking as another solution. The Fediverse, which is a decentralised network of social networking networks that share open standards and protocols, is slowly gaining traction in the Global North. It is particularly attractive because unlike established platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the Fediverse allows users to choose from a variety of platforms that cater to different communities and interests, each maintained autonomously by its community. This type of model reflects the early ethos of the internet; users coming together to form communities of interest based on user-designed protocols.

Conclusion

The commercialisation of the blue check will undoubtedly exacerbate misinformation for a while. However, the silver lining may be that civic society and users should start playing a more proactive role in content regulation on influential platforms. For the African continent, 2023 is an important year. There are at least 16 elections happening in Africa in 2023, according to the Electoral Institute for Sustainable Democracy in Africa (EISA). These elections include presidential, legislative, and local elections. While influential platforms like Twitter figure out their rebranding strategies and their verification processes, it may be worthwhile to explore the above-mentioned alternatives.