A verifiable mess: Twitter users create havoc by impersonating brands

Elon Musk in lower Manhattan on April 4, 2022. (File photo: NYTimes)
The parody accounts were proliferating on Twitter.

After Elon Musk, Twitter’s new owner, revamped a subscription service to give users a coveted verification check mark for $8 a month, users began abusing the program last week. Twitter accounts with check marks posed as companies like Eli Lilly and PepsiCo, sending spoof messages about free insulin and the superiority of Coca-Cola. One account with a check mark pretended to be Tesla, Musk’s electric car company, and bragged about using child labor.اضافة اعلان

Eventually, the disorder on Twitter seemed to become too much for Musk.

“We need to urgently roll out official labels for big advertisers due to impersonation,” a Twitter engineering manager wrote in an internal message seen by The New York Times. “Request is from Elon.”

Twitter, the so-called global town square, with about 240 million users, has descended in recent days into a messy swirl of accounts pretending to be high-profile brands and sending disruptive tweets. While Twitter has long contended with falsehoods and toxic speech, some users are exploiting the changes made by Musk — who took over the service last month in a $44 billion buyout — to gleefully sow chaos.

The impersonation and pranking could have serious consequences. Graham Brookie, a director at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, which studies online misinformation, said the quality of information and the credibility of content on Twitter could suffer if fraudsters created confusion and amplified lies. People might get check marks on their accounts and spread falsehoods just to make a buck, he added.

“Selling the truth is dangerous and unacceptable,” Senator Edward Markey wrote in a letter to Musk on November 11 after a Washington Post reporter posed as the politician with a check mark on Twitter to show how easy it was. “Twitter must explain how this happened and how it will prevent it from happening again.”

On November 10, Twitter Blue, the subscription service that people pay for to obtain a check mark, appeared to be paused. The check mark has long been a powerful symbol of authentication for celebrities, companies, and politicians. It was previously free and was bestowed only after Twitter had verified the identity of the account holder.

Musk and Twitter did not comment on the status of Twitter Blue. But the 51-year-old billionaire appeared unrepentant about his changes and the activity on the platform. He said in a tweet on November 11 that Twitter “hit all-time high of active users today”.

The disarray was the just one fallout following Musk’s ownership of Twitter. Since completing his takeover, Musk has laid off about half of Twitter’s 7,500 employees, told brands that he would engage in a “thermonuclear name&shame” if they cut off their advertising, and warned that the company was doing so badly that its cash flow was negative and that it could be on the verge of bankruptcy. Employees, he said, need to be more “hardcore”.

One of Musk’s solutions is to push for more subscription revenue, including charging $8 a month for Twitter Blue and letting those who pay get the check mark. The service, which is available only in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, was rolled out early this month, but without features including the check marks. After deliberation about the spread of political misinformation, the company paused the debut of the check marks until after the US midterm elections.

Musk also appeared cognizant of the dangers of impersonation on the service.

“Going forward, any Twitter handles engaging in impersonation without clearly specifying ‘parody’ will be permanently suspended,” he tweeted after some Twitter users, including comedian Kathy Griffin, changed their profile photos and display names to mimic his account. Griffin was later suspended from Twitter.

On November 9, accounts that had paid for the new Twitter Blue — among them parody accounts, conspiracy theorists, and white nationalists, according to Media Matters for America — started to get their check marks. Some accounts soon ran amok.

One impostor account with a check mark masqueraded as Eli Lilly, tweeting that the pharmaceutical company would provide free insulin to its customers. Eli Lilly’s stock tumbled more than 5 percent in trading the next day and was still down more than 4 percent at the close of trading for that day.

Another account with a check mark pretended to be Nintendo of America, sending a tweet featuring the video game company’s Mario character making a rude hand gesture.

Targets of the pranksters rushed to disavow the bogus statements. A spokesperson for Eli Lilly said in a statement that the company was working to correct the situation. A spokesperson for Nintendo had no immediate comment.

The confusion soon became too much for Twitter. Shortly before midnight on November 10, the company said it would append an “Official” label to some accounts to “combat impersonation”. Less than 48 hours earlier, the company had said it would not add such a label.

And the next day, Musk tweeted that a “Parody” subscript would be added to accounts doing parody impersonations.

An internal Twitter log seen by the New York Times showed that more than 140,000 accounts had signed up for the new Twitter Blue as of November 10.

In one of his earliest tweets as the new boss, Musk wrote, “Comedy is now legal on Twitter.” But the Twitter pranksters did not draw laughs from many brands.

“The immediate future on this platform, which essentially is the news cycle, is pretty bleak from a disinformation standpoint,” Brookie said.

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