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Twitter's Fake-Account Problem Got Messier With Musk. It May Get Worse

The paid verification system is scheduled to come back later this month.

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Billionaire Elon Musk bought Twitter for $44 billion after trying to back out of the deal.
Getty Images

Twitter's initial effort to charge money to verify accounts with blue check marks was a chaotic mess. That isn't stopping Elon Musk, the company's new owner, from resurrecting the idea.

Last week, Twitter started allowing some users to pay $8 per month to verify their account as part of a subscription plan known as Twitter Blue. The company quickly paused the plan after fake accounts with blue checks began posing as major brands, athletes and politicians. On Tuesday, Musk tweeted the paid verification system would return on Nov. 29. 

Twitter users got a first glimpse at the damage that can come from a rapid product change to the platform. Fake accounts impersonated Nintendo, Apple, Lockheed Martin -- even as Twitter and Musk's electric-vehicle company Tesla. Pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly and Co. saw its stock plummet after a fake account tweeted "We are excited to announce insulin is free now." Twitter eventually added an "official" label to some accounts to combat impersonation.

As Musk takes another stab at upending Twitter's verification system, he risks not only making the platform more confusing to use but angering brands that advertise on the platform. Before Musk purchased the influential social network for $44 billion and tried to get out of the deal, he vowed to "defeat the spam bots or die trying!" and "authenticate all real humans!" His solutions, though, have been controversial and aren't working as intended. 

"It often feels like when Elon Musk is making these decisions, he's just sort of playing around -- and doesn't recognize that this is a big deal to a lot of people," said India McKinney, director of federal affairs at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group.

Not only did brands and people have to deal with fake accounts with blue check marks, but Twitter users had to make sense of changes they might not have been aware of. If Twitter users go to an account's profile and click on the blue check mark, they can see why an account is verified. Twitter had previously verified accounts it determined were "active, notable, and authentic," but Musk plans to remove the unpaid check marks in a few months. 

For Twitter users, the changes are hard to keep track of. 

Jennifer Grygiel, a social media expert and associate professor at Syracuse University, said it's going to be tough for Musk to get Twitter users to view the platform differently when it still looks pretty much the same.

"Culture is sticky," Grygiel said. "If anything, it takes time to educate people. We saw what rapid destabilizing changes did."

Twitter didn't respond to a request for comment.

Fake verified accounts

Twitter and other social networks have long grappled with fake accounts on their platform. People create fake accounts for various reasons, including to scam people out of money, parody and to spread disinformation. Twitter does allow pseudonymous accounts such as parody as long as users aren't purposefully misleading or deceiving others. 

When Twitter introduced its new paid verification system last week, a fake account created in 2020 posing as Canadian psychologist and Harvard professor Steven Pinker purchased a verified blue check mark.

Two Twitter accounts with verified blue check marks claiming to be Steven Pinker.

Twitter's search results showed two Steven Pinker accounts with a verified blue check mark. Twitter suspended the fake account @realSpinker.

Screenshot by Queenie Wong/CNET

The fake account @realSpinker, which identified its location as "PARODY," tweeted "I apologize for blocking you all. I can see now that it wasn't a very rational way to act." The tweet got at least 227 likes and 40 retweets. The tweet appeared to reference Pinker blocking Twitter users in 2020 who mentioned his name with Jeffrey Epstein, a financier and convicted sex offender. Twitter suspended the fake Pinker account. 

Pinker, who has more than 794,000 followers on Twitter, said over email that he hadn't known about the fake verified account until CNET contacted him. "Yes, 'realSpinker' is fakeSpinker, and I'm glad it was taken down," he said.

Pinker added that he's had other accounts impersonate him a couple times in the past, but they were taken down quickly.

Twitter appears to be taking steps that could cut down on the number of fake accounts when it relaunches Twitter Blue. In an update to its webpage about Twitter Blue, the company notes that newly created Twitter accounts won't be able to subscribe to Twitter Blue for 90 days. 

Kevin Long started a company called Social Impostor in 2012 that identifies and removes fake social media accounts for high-profile brands, ministry members, athletes and actors. 

Long hasn't seen an uptick in fake Twitter accounts for his clients, but he's also keeping a close eye on changes the social media platform makes to verification.

Twitter is, however, taking a longer time to remove the fake accounts his company identifies, he said. Long said he used to get fake Twitter accounts taken down within a day or two, but now the company is running a week or so behind on reports. In early November, Twitter laid off 3,700 people, or half of the social media company's total workforce. The company eliminated 4,400 contract workers this week, Platformer reported.

Long said as more companies try to automate the process of getting fake accounts pulled down that seems to make the problem "worse instead of better."

"That's not just Twitter," he said. "It's all the networks that try to do it automatically."

But the ones who may suffer most from Twitter's rapid changes may be those who aren't in the spotlight. 

With 238 million daily users worldwide, Twitter's rapid moves could have a bigger impact on developing countries. Twitter Blue was only made available to Apple users in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the UK, and subscribers get priorities in replies, mentions and search results. Twitter says on its website that it plans to expand Twitter Blue, but Musk has said that the price will be adjusted by country. 

"It risks putting more power or speaking ability into the hands of people who already have wealth and access to an audience," McKinney said.

If Musk continues to tinker with his new purchase, users may not have the patience to stick around to see what happens.