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Blue Check Trainwreck

The colossally, epically stupid clashes about Twitter’s badges.
April 24, 2023
Blue Check Trainwreck
(The Bulwark / Midjourney)

The recent Battle of the Blue Checks (who has them? who doesn’t? who doesn’t want them but has them anyway?) undoubtedly counts as one of the dumbest episodes in Twitter history—and that’s saying a lot. But it is also, in its immense stupidity, a fitting symbol of the broader culture wars.

A quick recap of how the saga unfolded over the last half-year: Soon after his acquisition of Twitter in October 2022, Elon Musk ordered those employees he hadn’t yet fired to unveil a paid “Twitter Blue” service that would replace the old verification system. Initially, the subscription was going to cost $19.99 a month and “legacy users” were going to lose their blue checkmarks within 90 days if they did not pay up. After an outcry, Musk offered to lower the fee to $8 a month in an exchange with author Stephen King.

As the Twitter Blue idea evolved, it came to include some extra perks, such as the coveted ability to edit one’s tweets within 30 minutes of sending them, and a brief window of being able to unsend a tweet after hitting “send.” The rushed rollout was badly botched: It first launched on November 9, but two days later signups had to be suspended amid what Forbes called “a flood of impersonator accounts,” such as one with an “EliLillyandCo” handle announcing that “insulin is free now.”

Eventually, Twitter staff managed to get things under a semblance of control, and the Twitter Blue offer chugged along in uneasy coexistence with “legacy” blue checks so that, say, CNN host Wolf Blitzer or Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle had checkmarks that looked exactly like that of “Catturd2,” a pseudonymous troll who has become one of the biggest Twitter celebs of the Musk era.

Then, in March, Twitter announced that it would soon eliminate the old blue checkmarks—what it was now dubbing “Legacy Blue.” On Friday, it happened.

There was, of course, the usual gleeful lib-owning on the right. (Although there seemed to be a lot more right-wingers gloating about the libs crying than there were actual libs crying.)

Yoram Hazony, the intellectual impresario of national conservatism, tried to cast Musk’s move in terms of political philosophy:

But is there any substance to the notion that the pre-Musk “blue checks” were a Twitter elite based not only on prominence but on progressive politics? That’s certainly what Hazony implies, and it’s an assumption widely shared on the right.

In fact, the Twitter blue check started out in June 2009—that is, soon after the platform’s launch—as a way to verify celebrities, in response to celebrity complaints about being impersonated. (A historical irony: one of the original complainers was rapper Kanye West, now a major figure in the right-wing counterculture.) Until 2016, Twitter did not accept requests for verification but rather reached out to public figures who were deemed notable enough to have a blue check. After 2016, the granting of verification requests was an often confusing on-and-off process; requests were sometimes denied with no explanation.

An allegation emerged last November that some employees of pre-Musk Twitter would accept bribes to give users blue checks; Musk seemed to confirm this claim with a tweet saying merely “Yup,” although there has apparently been no investigation or confirmation by a disinterested party.

But the larger controversy surrounding the blue check related to the fact that while it was officially meant to verify identity, it was often taken to be an endorsement of sorts—and Twitter’s own language in describing blue-check verification seemed contradictory on whether it was about identity or endorsement:

Verification is currently used to establish authenticity of identities on Twitter. The verified badge helps users discover high-quality sources of information and trust that a legitimate source is authoring the account’s Tweets.

The confusion was exacerbated when, in January 2016, Twitter de-verified then-Breitbart tech reporter Milo Yiannopoulos—who was already a notorious provocateur but was not yet writing sympathetic articles about neo-Nazis or defending sex with underage boys—for unspecified violations of Twitter rules. As I wrote at the time, this was a bad precedent in a number of ways, among them creating the impression that the Twitter verification mark was either a good-behavior badge or a mark of official Twitter favor. (Later that year, Yiannopoulos was rightly banned for instigating the harassment of comic Leslie Jones.) Then, in the fall of 2017, in the wake of the white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, Twitter changed its policy to say that it would remove the verification of accounts found to be “promoting hate and/or violence” or “inciting or engaging in harassment of others.” The newly de-verified accounts included Charlottesville rally organizer Jason Kessler, white nationalist guru Richard Spencer, and far-right tantrum-thrower Laura Loomer.

Still, the vast majority of right-wing figures retained their blue checks—obviously starting with then-President Donald Trump. Ann Coulter’s blue check remained untouched; ditto for Sebastian Gorka and Michelle Malkin, among many others. It would seem that you had to be far on the fringe of the right wing to be deemed un-blue-worthy.

To what extent there was left-wing bias in rule enforcement on pre-Musk Twitter—much of it unintended and simply reflecting the subjective biases of mostly progressive moderators—is a hugely complicated question to which an accurate answer may be impossible to get. But claims that the old “blue checks” were a woke elite are easily refuted when you realize, for instance, that their ranks included the entire elite of Fox News (Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, Sean Hannity, Jeanine Pirro, etc.) and various NewsMax personalities; anti-woke, “anti-establishment” contrarians such as Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi; other right-wing media personalities and activists from Ben Shapiro, Larry Elder, and Mark Levin to Jack Posobiec, Charlie Kirk, Benny Johnson, and Candace Owens; “Intellectual Dark Web” figures such as Brett Weinstein and Jordan Peterson; and plenty more.

If “woke progressives” on Twitter sometimes acted as if they should be the undisputed arbiters of manners and morals on the platform, it certainly wasn’t based on their possession of the blue check. The right-wingers railing against the blue-check old guard and currently rejoicing in its downfall are battling, as they often do, a phantom menace. That the distorted perception of blue-check privilege was partly the result of mismanagement, chaotic decision-making, and at least some ideological skew by pre-Musk Twitter doesn’t make this perception any less addled.

The current blanket hostility by some progressives to the “new” blue checks is just as silly and overwrought. All you have to do is scroll through recent tweets and you’ll see that plenty of people who currently have blue checks are neither Elon fanboys/fangirls nor right-wing trolls who show off their blue checks as trophies seized from fallen enemies. People may have all sorts of reasons to pay for Twitter Blue. (For the record, I have a Twitter Blue account for the editing and other perks, though I probably won’t renew it next month.) Assailing people for refusing to pay $8 for Twitter Blue is petty and stupid, but so is mass-blocking people who’ve decided they want to pay the fee.

As I said: It’s an extremely stupid fight, and hence the epitome of the culture wars.

And just as culture war clashes distract us from things that matter more, the Battle of the Blue Checks is obscuring questions about whether the general quality of Twitter discourse is declining, and about the dangers of proliferating fake accounts now that most of the blue checks are gone and the supposed verification system apparently doesn’t do very much of anything.

Meanwhile, there’s one last dumb twist in this dumb story: Musk is giving the free blue badges back to some Twitter bigshots with over a million followers and to other individuals he likes (so much for anti-elitism). He’s also making a point of giving checkmarks to some prominent individuals who have sworn they would not pay for Twitter Blue. And our Musk-era Twitter pundits who were recently gloating over “the libs” missing their blue checks are now gloating over “the libs” not wanting their blue checks.

The stupid thickens.

Cathy Young

Cathy Young is a writer at The Bulwark, a columnist for Newsday, and a contributing editor to Reason. Twitter: @CathyYoung63.