A hodgepodge of Twitter’s worst individuals were sporting shiny blue check marks on Friday, including notorious punching bag and literal neo-Nazi Richard Spencer, thanks to the ill-conceived money grab of the platform’s new owner, Elon Musk.
In addition to Spencer, who’s argued on behalf of turning the U.S. into a white ethnostate, Musk’s new blue check marks are being donned by major transphobic accounts like Libs of TikTok, which has baselessly accused LGBTQ people of being pedophiles and has been tied to waves of harassment aimed at hospitals providing medical care to transgender kids and teens. (Children’s hospitals around the country have reported bomb threats and other acts of intimidation in the wake of the account naming them.)
Gays Against Groomers, one of the most prominent accounts attacking the parents of transgender children online, has faced multiple suspensions on Twitter for hate speech. But its account now, too, bears one of Musk’s badges. In late October, the account thanked Musk directly for helping further its anti-trans agenda.
The blue check marks were previously employed to prevent users from being duped by accounts impersonating celebrities, brands, and government officials, among others. Now, however, a blue check mark is part of an $8 per month subscription to Twitter Blue, available to anyone with a credit card, though some users have spotted a vacancy where the subscription options used to be in Twitter’s menu. Musk, whose acquisition saddled the company with $13 billion in debt, has said that users purchasing the badges will eventually attain greater visibility on the platform. Speaking to advertisers on Wednesday, he compared tweets from users without them to emails ending up in a “spam folder.”
Also now “verified” is Jason Kessler, the white supremacist who organized the Unite the Right rally that ended with murder of counterprotester Heather Heyer, a 32-year-old paralegal. Like Spencer, Twitter had previously verified Kessler in 2017 — after he referred to Heyer as a “fat, disgusting Communist” whose murder he called “payback time.”
Twitter removed Kessler and Spencer’s check marks the same month after a torrent of bad press, but nevertheless chose to let them to stay on the platform.
The left-leaning nonprofit Media Matters noted in a report late Thursday that several QAnon promoters had likewise obtained badges, including Nicholas Veniamin, host of a QAnon program banned by YouTube last year. QAnon has inspired several acts of real-world violence, often by people struggling with family problems and mental health issues.
Terrorism researchers this month argued on behalf of combating QAnon-related violence by adopting a public health approach, rather than using traditional law enforcement tactics, noting that adherents were “primarily motivated to commit acts of interpersonal violence, often targeting those around them, including their own children.”
“Elon Musk is incinerating his new $44 billion toy like it’s a self-driving Tesla and the rest of us are engulfed in the flames,” said Nicole Gill, co-founder and executive director of the group Accountable Tech. “This hellscape is going to get more hellish. More hate speech and harassment. More deception and impersonation. More privacy and security risks for all of us.”
Musk’s decision to include the blue badges as part of his new paid subscription service has already harpooned the social network’s reputation, long heralded as the “internet’s town square.” Pranksters and trolls flocked to obtained “verified” accounts on Thursday, stealing the identities of politicians, religious figures, and major companies, including Musk’s own SpaceX and Tesla. One user joked under an imposter Tesla account with a blue check, “A second Tesla has hit the World Trade Center.”
Sen. Ed Markey tweeted Friday morning that he’d been among the politicians who were successfully impersonated. (Assuming his identity was Geoffrey Fowler, a Washington Post columnist, who said he had gotten Markey’s permission to test the bounds of Musk’s new blue check program.)
Following Thursday’s pandemonium, Musk reportedly told staff that declaring bankruptcy “isn’t out of the question.”
Twitter could not be reached for comment, as its communications department has only one employee as of Thursday.