Why Elon Musk’s cull of Twitter ‘verified’ blue ticks could prove costly

Twitter’s aristocracy is no more. Last year, Elon Musk described the verification process as a “lords & peasants system” and on Thursday he deployed the guillotine. Feudalism has now given way to capitalism: money gets you status.

In a long-threatened cull, famous names including Cristiano Ronaldo, Beyoncé, Kim Kardashian, JK Rowling and Sir Paul McCartney lost the blue ticks that confer verified status on accounts.

On 1 November, shortly after buying the social media platform, Musk decried the system for verification, tweeting: “Twitter’s current lords & peasants system for who has or doesn’t have a blue checkmark is bullshit.” Soon, he wrote, users would have to pay for accreditation, adding: “Power to the people!”
Accounts affected by Thursday’s move had not signed up to the Twitter Blue subscription service, which costs from $8 a month in the US, £9.60 in the UK and A$13 in Australia, and is now the only way of securing that coveted blue tick – unless Musk chooses to cover the cost himself. The change has stripped the blue tick from about 400,000 legacy verified accounts.
The blue tick is not just an honorific, however. Subscribers to the new service will get boosted rankings in conversations and search, while their replies will also receive greater prominence. Tweets that they interact with will also benefit.

It means that maintaining influence or presence on the platform will cost money from now on, whereas it was free under the previous system whereby blue ticks reassured users that the accounts were who they said they were. However, Musk has said that users will still be able to see unverified accounts that they follow on the platform’s default For You feed.

Some safeguards against imposter accounts – which bedevilled a previous Twitter Blue push – have been introduced, such as blocking new accounts from signing up to the service for 30 days. The Twitter Blue website page adds that the platform is “working on an updated process for new Twitter accounts in order to help minimise impersonation risks and may impose and change waiting periods for new accounts without notice”.

Musk’s move is largely rooted in financial motivations, despite the anti-feudal rhetoric. When he tried to pull out of the deal to buy Twitter he argued he was doing so because he believed the platform was plagued by vexatious automated accounts. Twitter acknowledged the platform had a bot problem – largely related to pornography and cryptocurrency content – but Musk alleged it was much bigger than the company was letting on, meaning advertisers could not gauge whether they were receiving value for money.

Under legal pressure from Twitter, Musk was forced to push ahead with the takeover but he remained adamant that bots were a problem and paid verification was the best solution. He said in his 1 November Twitter thread that giving paid-for verified accounts priority in replies, mentions and search was “essential to defeat spam/scam”, presumably under the logic that a bot account would not pay for a tick and would thus be less prominent.

Musk is also determined to reduce Twitter’s dependence on advertising, something he has already achieved with a botched Blue relaunch in November that led to a slew of impersonation accounts that in turn contributed to an advertiser exodus (some advertisers had also expressed concerns about moderation standards post-takeover).

In its last published set of accounts, advertising represented 90% of Twitter’s $5bn (£4bn) in annual revenue. According to Musk recently, revenue is due to drop to less than $3bn this year. Costs have also been slashed sharply, with staff numbers cut by about 75% to 1,500 people, which Musk says has seen off the threat of bankruptcy. But if advertisers do not return in force he will need more than the 600,000-635,000 Blue subscribers the platform is estimated to have, which equates to about $5m+ a month in revenue.

Loss of verified status may persuade some users to pay up. According to the software developer Travis Brown, who tracks Twitter Blue subscriptions, the number of signups has risen from 550,000-585,000 at the start of the month to his latest estimate of up to 635,000.

In the meantime, however, Twitter has to hope that this move does not damage a priceless but intangible commodity: trust. If Musk is replacing a feudal system, he needs to do it with a structure that will last. Journalists and commentators are among the thousands of accounts that lost their ticks on Thursday.

“Twitter’s approach may help its business, but won’t help people identify who or what is worth listening to and the danger is that it will ultimately degrade trust that is critical for long-term sustainability,” says Nic Newman, a senior research associate at the Reuters Institute for the Study Journalism.