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Twitter's blue checkmarks now indicate something other than a verified account

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

All right. Who is real and who is fake on Twitter? That is now an urgent question as the new owner of Twitter, Elon Musk, makes the first major change to the social network. He's letting anyone pay for a verified blue checkmark. And since then, chaos has ensued, from fake George W. Bush and Tony Blair accounts trading insensitive jokes about the Iraq war to a, quote-unquote, "verified" account for Jesus Christ. Trolls have been having a field day on the platform. And here to tell us more about it is NPR tech reporter Bobby Allyn. Hey, Bobby.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: All right. So what exactly has Musk done with these blue checkmarks?

ALLYN: He basically put them up for sale. Now, before Musk, Twitter handed out blue checks to government officials, athletes, celebrities, journalists and others as a way of saying this person or organization is official. And, you know, as a result, what people said from these accounts was taken dead seriously. It could affect people's safety during emergencies. It could influence policy. It would move markets. Now, though, we're in a whole new world because the blue check is shrouded in doubt. And that's, you know, in part because, you know, Musk is offering, for $8 a month, this service called Twitter Blue, which allows you to pay for the status symbol.

Musk has tweeted that the old way created, quote, "lords and peasants" system. The problem, however, is we've seen, as you mentioned, all sorts of fake accounts - Lebron James' account that was fake, you know, falsely saying he wanted to be traded. There was a phony Nintendo account with, you know, the Mario character giving the middle finger. A Trump impersonator was floating around Twitter. There was a fake Eli Lilly account that falsely said insulin is now free.

CHANG: Wow.

ALLYN: So, yeah, I mean, Twitter has been nothing short of total chaos the past 24 hours.

CHANG: Wait, so what is Musk saying in response to the flood of impersonators? Like, is he going to make any changes?

ALLYN: He is. He's instructed employees at Twitter that cracking down on impersonators is the No. 1 priority. And Twitter is suspending some of these phony accounts pretty quickly. But the problem is getting out of hand, I mean, so much so that Twitter announced that Twitter Blue accounts - so, you know, buying these blue checks - it's no longer available for brand new accounts. The company is kind of pausing that right now until it sorts out this mess.

CHANG: OK. So in the meantime, like, what are researchers who study social media saying about the blue checkmark changes?

ALLYN: Yeah, they're really on edge, Ailsa. I talked to Rachel Tobac. She runs the firm Proof Security, which is focused on preventing the - you know, preventing the abuse of social media sites like Twitter. And, you know, she said we haven't seen any election officials accounts, you know, impersonated yet. But Tobac says we're only in the early days of these changes.

RACHEL TOBAC: Right now, we have people making jokes, impersonating the president, impersonating Nintendo. And Elon Musk is laughing at those jokes because he thinks they're funny right now. What's not going to be funny is someone impersonating an election official and meddling and causing interference within the election results.

ALLYN: Yeah, Tobac also mentioned that, you know, what if during a hurricane or a flood or some other kind of catastrophe, you know, say, a fake emergency services account with a blue check gave people harmful advice about where to seek shelter? I mean, that could be a total catastrophe.

CHANG: Yeah, absolutely. Well, are people thinking, like, all of this is just some growing pain under Musk or is this the new Twitter?

ALLYN: Yeah, I think that's the big question right now. I mean, one thing is for sure - more and more of Musk's deputies are ditching him. I mean, just today we learned that Twitter's head of trust and safety is reportedly leaving the company. And that came after news spread that Twitter's chief privacy officer and the top compliance officer resigned over fears that Musk is going to blow off a court order concerning user privacy - so lots of drama inside of the company right now. On the platform itself, you know, Musk has really taken the move-fast-and-break-things ethos of Silicon Valley to heart. A few times already, you know, we've seen these changes announced on Twitter, and they're, you know, then undone just minutes later. So...

CHANG: Right.

ALLYN: ...It's kind of a crazy time right now. Worth pointing...

CHANG: Yeah.

ALLYN: ...Out that, you know, these seismic changes are happening at a time when Twitter has half the staff that it had before Musk took over. So if there's one piece of advice I leave you with, Ailsa, it's be careful what you retweet.

CHANG: Got you. That is NPR's Bobby Allyn. Thank you, Bobby.

ALLYN: Thanks, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.