Twitter has again U-turned over its verification policy, restoring the “blue tick” free of charge to celebrity users of the social network.
But the site’s decision to reinstate the “verified” status without distinguishing between paid-for and free users has led to criticism for false advertising, since the boilerplate disclaimer for those users inaccurately describes their status as being granted “because they are subscribed to Twitter Blue”.
The social network ended its old verification system on Friday 20 April, a date apparently chosen because of its significance in cannabis culture, and in the process stripped all “legacy” users of the blue checkmark that indicated their account was genuine.
But the move, which left only those users who had paid for Twitter’s subscription service with a checkmark, had unforeseen consequences for Elon Musk, the social network’s owner and chief executive.
Rather than encouraging pre-existing verified users to splash out the subscription fee, which starts at $8 a month, the overwhelming majority simply continued using the site. Public data shows that fewer than 500 of the 400,000 legacy users signed up, and almost as many users cancelled their subscription at the same time, for a net revenue increase of less than $300 a month.
As a result, a blue tick on the social network rapidly came to mark out a user as paying for the privilege, leading to a grassroots campaign to “block the blue”, with users committing to blocking subscribers on sight.
Not every user with a blue tick had paid for it themselves, however. On Friday, Musk revealed that three had received one for free: Stephen King, LeBron James and William Shatner. Over the weekend, that number drastically increased, with almost every celebrity user with more than 1 million followers receiving a new blue tick (with one notable exception: Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Twitter and of the decentralised Twitter competitor Bluesky, who did not get a new verification mark).
The rapid loss of social credibility for having such a mark, however, led many users to disclaim their new status. Re-verified users including the Guardian columnist Owen Jones, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Twitter comic dril all revealed that their new status had come without them paying for or requesting it.
Other users have been unable to issue such statements. The actor Paul Walker, who died in 2013, the celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, who died in 2018, and the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered by the Saudi state that same year, were all given “paid-for” verification.
Some, including Jones and dril, wondered whether doing so, and marking their accounts as having “paid for” a service they did not, was plausibly illegal. “Isn’t it some form of defamation to falsely make it look like people have purchased a product associated with being a total loser,” asked Jones. (Dril joked that Musk had “fired the people in charge of telling him it’s illegal”.)
English law protects celebrities against the tort of “passing off”, when individuals’ goodwill is harmed through misrepresentation. According to the solicitors Lewis Silkin, “in 2002, a landmark case established beyond doubt that celebrities can use passing off to protect the goodwill in their celebrity. Racing driver Eddie Irvine successfully sued TalkSport over a direct mailing piece which featured a photograph of him holding a portable radio which had the TalkSport name and logo on it. In fact, Irvine had been holding a mobile phone at the time the photo had been taken, but it had been digitally manipulated to replace the phone with the radio.
“The judge decided that the advertisement clearly gave rise to a false impression of endorsement of the radio station by Irvine, and that the law of passing off should protect him from this infringement of his goodwill.”
A request for comment to Twitter went unanswered save for the company’s standard automatic response, an emoji of a smiling poo.
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