The Dark Side of Twitter Blue Tick: How X Premium Verification Fuels Disinformation, Notorieties, and Conflict

Mustapha Lawal

Fake news spreads like wildfire, mostly by real people, on social media. The internet makes it super easy to spread false information. According to Habeeb Adisa, the Program Manager and a fact checker at FactCheckElection in a feature articleSocial media significantly contributes to the spread of information disorders due to its broad usage and quick information distribution. The rapid growth of digital media platforms has facilitated the dissemination of false or misleading information, leading to potential social unrest.”

X formerly known as Twitter, is a popular social media platform that launched in 2006. It has since become an essential source of information, with prominent figures and top government officials from all over the world constantly sharing vital information through it. Twitter has always prided itself as a “window into what’s happening in the world” as it has become a go-to source for any news. Due to its real-time nature, the platform allows individuals to report on events as they happen, often beating traditional news outlets to the punch.

Twitter Blue (X Premium) Verification

Twitter introduced blue check marks in 2009 to verify notable accounts. In 2022, Elon Musk made them a paid service, no longer taking into account users’ activity, notability, or authenticity. This makes it hard to distinguish credible sources from impersonators or hoaxes. The paid subscription service, formerly known as Twitter Blue, is now called X Premium. The blue verification badge was introduced to help users distinguish real accounts from fakes. It indicates that an account is authentic and belongs to a person or entity of public interest. 

However, as social media dynamics have evolved, so has the significance of this badge. In the past, users could apply for a legacy checkmark through a free verification process that required accounts to be “authentic, notable, and active.” Government officials, celebrities, activists, news organizations, journalists, and other notable figures were often approved for the checkmark.

“The blue tick was a sign to show that these are verified users and therefore they can be trusted,” said Bettie Mbayo, a fact-checker and the co-founder of Stage Media in Liberia. In contrast, today any user can pay $8 per month to have a blue checkmark attached to their name.

Twitter Ad Revenue Sharing and Disinformation

Advertising revenue (Ad revenue) is the monetary income that individuals and businesses earn from displaying paid advertisements on platforms surrounding internet-based content.

Ads revenue sharing lets users share revenue from verified user’s organic impressions of ads displayed in replies to content posts on X.  According to X help “This is part of an effort to help people earn a living directly on X.”  TechCrunch reported about a writer known as Brian Krassenstein, who has about 750,000 followers on Twitter, who said Twitter paid him $24,305.

Twitter’s payouts are determined by tweet impressions. Following the recent payout, several users have taken to engage in different activities (including sharing fake news, sensationalisation, nudes and other forms of notorieties) to increase their impression on the platform. 

“I have seen more leaked nudes and their amplification, in one week on this platform than I have seen in years,” said Japheth Omojuwa, a Nigerian writer, political commentator and social media expert in a tweet after X paid some users. 

The New Twitter’s Blue Check Policy and Disinformation

Twitter’s blue verification badge, was once seen as a symbol of credibility and authenticity. However, it has now evolved and taken on a new role in social media – that of a double-edged sword of showcasing premium subscriptions and inadvertently becoming a tool fueling disinformation.

While Twitter was intended in the past to help users identify legitimate accounts of public figures, celebrities, and brands, the blue tick has inadvertently become a tool that fuels disinformation, and notoriety and exacerbates conflicts. 

One of the unintended consequences of the blue verification badge is that it has bestowed an aura of false authority on verified accounts. People often assume that a verified account’s content is accurate and reliable, simply due to the presence of the blue tick. 

This assumption creates a perfect breeding ground for disinformation to spread rapidly. When a verified account shares false or misleading information, its credibility can lend undue legitimacy to the misinformation, leading unsuspecting users to believe and propagate it further. 

For example, a study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s Quant Lab found that more than a quarter of tweets about Ukraine, vaccines, and climate change from X Premium subscribers contained false information.

The blue verification badge inadvertently reinforces confirmation bias and echo chambers. When users encounter content from verified accounts that align with their existing beliefs, they are more likely to accept it without critical evaluation. This perpetuates the echo chamber effect, where individuals are surrounded by information that reinforces their viewpoints, isolating them from diverse perspectives and reliable sources. 

Experts say there has been a recognisable lag in the app’s [X] ability to track misinformation since October 2022, when Elon Musk completed the takeover of Twitter. “He has fired the majority of the people who are working on content moderation on the platform,” Odanga Madung, senior researcher on elections at the Mozilla Foundation said. 

Twitter Blue (X Premium) and Conflict Exacerbation

As misinformation gains legitimacy through the blue tick, it has the potential to escalate conflicts. False information shared by verified accounts can spark outrage, fuel social divisions, and even incite real-world actions. In situations of political or social unrest, the misinformation disseminated by verified accounts can exacerbate tensions and further polarize society.

The algorithmic nature of social media platforms can magnify the reach of verified accounts, particularly when their content aligns with prevailing trends. As a result, disinformation from verified accounts is granted a disproportionate level of visibility, potentially reaching millions of users and causing widespread confusion.

“The [X] algorithm works by prioritizing people with [X Premium], so you get to be on top of spaces. When you comment or tweet you tend to get visibility,” said Alfred Olufemi, a journalist at the Nigerian newspaper, PUNCH as reported by Caleb Ijioma for Ijnet

The coveted blue verification badge on Twitter has not only failed to curb disinformation but also amplified its effects, leading to heightened conflicts in the digital and real world. During the conflict in Sudan, the country’s main paramilitary force, the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) legacy check mark was removed. A fake account with a blue checkmark posed as the militant group and falsely claimed the death of its leader, Mohamed Dagalo. This post received 1.7 million views within a short period of time. The false account was later taken down.

In another example, several fake accounts posed as Kenyan news and entertainment TV channel, Citizen TV Kenya, and posted false information. One of the fake accounts, which was later suspended, claimed that Dr SK Macharia, founder and chairman of Royal Media Services, which owns the TV channel, was pronounced dead. The post spread until Citizen TV Kenya debunked it on X and Facebook.

According to Apuke & Omar, among the six main false news outbreaks with severe negative effects in Nigeria are the Fake social media posts that exacerbated the regional and religious crises (2012, 2018); The herders and farmers conflict exacerbated by fake images and news (2019); and election fraud allegations and other false information (2015 presidential election).

Odanga Madung told Al Jazeera that the patterns of fake news flux during elections in Africa are consistent. This has led to increased concerns of misleading unsuspecting voters, sowing political apathy or leading to violence and conflicts before, during and after the elections. 

Conclusion

To address the unintended consequences of the blue verification badge, X must take a multipronged approach. First, it should revise its verification criteria to emphasize not only payment (subscription) but also a track record of responsible and accurate content sharing. Omojuwa recommended that Twitter (X) also reviews and moderates what can qualify for the X impression payments. 

Second, the platform needs to integrate robust fact-checking mechanisms for verified accounts, ensuring that false information is not granted the blue tick’s implied credibility. 

Third, efforts should be made to enhance users’ media literacy skills, encouraging critical evaluation of content regardless of its source. 

The platform must take proactive steps to ensure that the blue tick’s significance aligns with the its goal of fostering informed and responsible discourse in the digital age and for the sanity of our society.

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