The changes that Elon Musk has made to Twitter, including how accounts can be verified, have kept users groaning and frustrated from the day he took over the site. Now, it turns out, that particular policy is also helping Russian propagandists promote disinformation about Ukraine during the invasion.
The iconic blue checkmarks have long been a way for a reader to verify an account’s identity.
If one is reading a post from the President of the United States, from another elected representative, from a news media presenter, or even from an actor, being able to check that the message actually comes from that person and not an impersonator is crucial.
Musk is now selling an alternative checkmark under his Twitter Blue program for $8 to anyone who wants one.
This new checkmark does not establish that the poster is who they claim to be or that they’re a reliable source — but it does convey other advantages to the account holder, like a wider distribution of their posts and a greater appearance of legitimacy.
Unfortunately, this new system is convenient for those with ill intentions — including propagandists who want to spread a false narrative.
In fact, accounts created to spread pro-Russian propaganda are reportedly buying blue checkmarks and using the resultant influence to spread their message more effectively.
“The accounts claim to be based outside of Russia, so they can pay for verification without running afoul of U.S. sanctions. But they pass along articles from state-run media, statements by Russian officials, and lies about Ukraine from Kremlin allies…,” The Washington Post reported.
The accounts in question are described as sharing content such as videos purporting to show Russians killing Ukrainian soldiers; commentary about U.S. taxpayers funding Ukraine’s defense (don’t confuse these with U.S. Republican legislators’ accounts doing the same, though); and other messages in support of Vladimir Putin and his invasion.
The research comes from an organization called Reset which argues that big tech is complicit in war crimes.
They are now calling on major tech companies to freeze accounts that belong to Russian government entities as well as others that are spreading disinformation on Putin’s behalf.
They’ve previously released information concerning the use of tech to promote propaganda, including addressing the role of Russian propaganda in swaying the 2016 election, and how tech companies, including social media sites, inadvertently boosted that.
With Facebook parent Meta recently unveiling a similar paid blue checkmark program, many people are concerned that it is avarice rather than identity security that is the primary motivation for social media companies’ latest moves.
Given Twitter’s lack of profitability and the huge investment that musk has made in the platform — not to mention the South African expatriate’s right-wing troll proclivities, it is a fear that may be very justified.
Meanwhile, users of any social media platform will need to question the real identities of the people behind the tweets they read. They may be coming from a Russian troll farm again.
Steph Bazzle covers politics and theocracy, always aiming for a world free from extremism and authoritarianism. Follow Steph on Twitter @imjustasteph.