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5 Tips to Tell if What You See on Twitter is Real

Since Elon Musk removed blue verification check marks for people who don’t pay, you need to be a detective

spinner image a pile of twitter blue check marks

On April 20, Twitter boss Elon Musk followed through on a threat to remove blue verification check marks from “legacy” Twitter accounts unless account holders paid.

The controversial policy leaves many who flock to Twitter for breaking news feeling blue themselves. Pre-Musk Twitter attached blue check marks to Twitter handles as a stamp of authenticity bestowed upon notable people and organizations.

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Check marks were typically issued to athletes, celebrities, government agencies, politicians and members of the media who were independently verified. To keep or get a blue check mark now along with certain other features, people must opt into a Twitter Blue subscription, which has a basic cost of $8 a month, or $84 a year.

Dan Evon, senior manager of education design at the nonprofit News Literacy Project, which tries to help people identify credible news, says people who go on Twitter only periodically may have missed the significance of the change.

“This content comes really fast, and one of the things that blue signals were great for was this little indicator of trust,” he says. “You knew who was sending this information to you. And that’s no longer the case.”

Users aren’t buying into Twitter Blue

Only a few people on Twitter are actually paying for Musk’s subscription plan. About 600,000 of Twitter's 250 million users subscribe to Twitter Blue, according to the Mashable online news outlet. Less than 5 percent of folks who had legacy verified accounts are choosing to subscribe.

Pope Francis, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Halle Berry and Oprah Winfrey were reportedly among the many prominent people who saw their blue check marks disappear though at least some high profile accounts with more than 1 million followers have since seen the badges reinstated — even without a subscription. Bizarrely, check marks have also been resurrected next to accounts for deceased celebrities such as Chadwick Boseman, Anthony Bourdain and Kobe Bryant.

Musk himself picked up the fee for such Twitter Blue critics as NBA superstar LeBron James, author Stephen King and Star Trek actor William Shatner without their consent. 

(This writer’s own blue check mark has been confiscated.)

Why blue check mark verification began

The previous blue check mark originated in 2009 when then-Manager Tony LaRussa of the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team filed a lawsuit against Twitter. Someone impersonated his account and posted derogatory and demeaning material under his name.

Twitter’s current verification system includes gray check marks for government organizations and gold ones for verified businesses in addition to the blue check marks.

Losing a blue check mark isn’t merely a matter of vanity for account holders. It compounds a growing cancer on social media and the internet where detecting fake accounts from real ones is getting more difficult.

By subscribing to Twitter Blue, and with it getting the blue check mark, an impostor can more easily pretend to be someone else. Twitter does say that Blue subscribers need to meet eligibility requirements for a check mark, but the criteria appear to be vague.

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“Twitter’s ‘blue check’ used to signal author authenticity,” NewsGuard, a service that reports on online misinformation, noted in a recent report. “Now, it’s a way for peddlers of misinformation to appear trustworthy.”

Spread of misinformation already occurring

In November, a viral tweet in the name of pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly announced that insulin would be free. The tweet and the account behind it were bogus despite the presence of a blue badge. The real Eli Lilly subsequently pulled its Twitter advertising.

During a week in early March, NewsGuard analyzed what it identified as 25 “misinformation superspreader accounts” verified through Twitter Blue, each with at least 50,000 followers. The accounts cumulatively posted 141 tweets with “false, misleading and unsubstantiated” claims that were viewed more than 27 million times and received more than 760,000 likes and retweets.  

In the first 24 hours since Twitter purged blue check marks from previously verified users, Alex Mahadevan, director of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies’ MediaWise media literacy initiative, says he saw misinformation coming from fake accounts for the mayor of Chicago and the Chicago Department of Transportation. He also watched as sheriff's offices from around the country — from Ventura County in California to Polk County in Florida — lost their verification.

“This is incredibly dangerous as folks look to government and emergency-management sources on Twitter to follow disaster news,” Mahadevan says. “Where I am in Florida, I can't imagine the chaos that will ensue once hurricane season starts and imposters look to sow chaos by impersonating the National Hurricane Center or The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).”

Of course, the spread of misinformation, fake posts and hoax accounts on social media and the rest of the internet is nothing new. But leaps in artificial intelligence make it harder in some cases for consumers to get at the truth. Twitter’s blue check mark shift requires folks to be even more vigilant.

spinner image two pictures of aarp tech writer ed baigs twitter profile - one with a blue check and one without
AARP tech writer Ed Baig lost his blue check mark, above left, when Twitter went to a paid plan. But he’s been on the social media site since May 2007 and has more than 14,200 followers, an indication he’s not an impostor.

Check this list to help you verify a Twitter account:

1. Go to the original source

“Always double-check what you see on social media,” Mahadevan says. “Did an account that looks like your police department say a major road is closed? Open a search engine and check out what news outlets are saying.”

Read the bios of the people or organizations that are tweeting, and if the group has a website, make sure it links back to a credible source, Evon says.

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2. Note an account’s number of followers

Consider how many followers an account has. It’s not a foolproof indicator, but prominent people and reputable companies and government agencies may have thousands, even millions, of followers. Scammers or those spreading falsehoods in someone else’s name may have fewer than 100, a possible warning sign.

Valerie Pavilonis, a staff analyst at NewsGuard Technologies, also recommends examining the kind of engagements posts are getting from followers.

3. See when an account was created

“If it's only a few months old, that's another red flag,” Mahadevan says. An older account is one measure of authenticity.

4. Look at how Twitter handles are spelled

Misspellings in a Twitter handle may be another clue that something is amiss.

“Check the @ username. Does it match the account's display name? Is it a '1' or an 'L' in the name?” Mahadevan asks.

5. Take a few minutes to think

The bottom line: Take time to think critically.

“A lot of the content on Twitter, and honestly any social media, [can be] inflammatory, get the blood pressure up. It’s important to not anger-retweet or anger-Like something.” Pavilonis says. “If something seems really out there, it might not be true. It’s important to stay calm, even if what you are seeing is upsetting.”

Evon reaches a similar conclusion.

“The one tip that I always come back to is to slow down,” he says. “You come across misinformation, whether it is something that confirms your political beliefs, or something that appeals or triggers some sort of emotion. It happens so quickly that you just see it, you believe it, you share it.”

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