Let’s talk about…Musk, and Twitter’s new verification fee

“The bird is freed” – but verification is not

After a seven-month-long saga of disputes, and recent attempts to back out of the multi-billion dollar deal, Elon Musk has finally gone through with his $44billion acquisition of Twitter, declaring in a tweet on October 28th that “the bird is freed”.

Musk’s takeover came right at the last second, the deal closing on the day before Delaware Chancery Court would have gone ahead with Twitter’s lawsuit against the Tesla CEO for failing to honour his commitment to buy the company after his bid was accepted in April.

Almost immediately after Musk gained ownership of Twitter, nearly half of the company’s employees were let go, including a handful of top executives. However, in the short time since, Musk has had to backtrack on this abrupt decision, with dozens of employees being asked to come back to the company just days after being fired.

Evidentially, in his rashness, Musk failed to realise that some people he was letting go would be required to build the new features he envisages. And the move didn’t sit well with Twitter’s advertisers either; most of those fired worked on policy and content moderation, and the fear is that in their absence, the platform will see a spike in trolling and hate speech, which advertisers don’t want to be associated with.

Of course, the fact that a bulk of those fired were working on content moderation/policy comes as little surprise to anyone who knows what the new CEO envisions for the platform. Ever since the acquisition saga began, Musk has been vocal about wanting his version of Twitter to champion ‘free speech’, and move away from moderation.

One wonders how Musk intends to reconcile his plans to do away with moderation (as he proposed) while retaining Twitter advertisers. Similarly, one wonders how he plans to make good on his promises to investors to quintuple revenue by 2028 if he doesn’t succeed in retaining advertisers, which at the moment, account for the vast majority of Twitter’s yearly earnings. Presumably, this is where one of Musk’s newer proposals for the platform comes in.

Among the changes Musk has set out for Twitter is the introduction of a monthly $8 verification fee (originally $20, but after a backlash, even Elon had to admit that was too steep). Twitter verification, denoted by a little tick beside a user’s name, up until this point functioned as a marker by which to find the official account for a public figure, and could only be acquired by a well-known person or group. Now anyone can pay for it; per Musk’s vision, all users will now have the option of paying a monthly subscription to Twitter Blue, a pre-existing premium tier to the platform that unlocks additional features, and that will now include verification, fewer ads, and priority in replies, mentions, and search, among other perks.

Musk regards this move, and the priority exposure in particular, as “essential to defeat(ing) spam/scam”. According to him, the aim is to “get as much people payment verified as possible”, the logic being that spam/scam accounts will then be suppressed by the algorithm because they are not part of Twitter Blue. But Musk has made a bold assumption here; hacking/obtaining a hacked verified account previously was much more challenging than bypassing payment authentication for Twitter Blue will be for scammers. Additionally, Musk insists that introducing paid verification will sift the authentic accounts from the inauthentic, saying in an interview that the unverified accounts “will be the bots and trolls and whatnot”; he doesn’t account for those who won’t pay because they can’t afford to/don’t want to – either because of his own blind faith in his vision for the platform or because, as the richest person in the world, he genuinely can’t imagine how anyone would notice losing $8 a month.

Either way, the idea of priority exposure and subsequently that in order for users to not have their account be pushed down and essentially shadowbanned to make room at the top for verified users, they too must cough up the fee each month, is bitterly ironic coming from a man who said his primary aim in overhauling the platform was championing “free speech”. Musk clarified that “you’ll have to scroll really far to see unverified users”, confirming free accounts will be actively suppressed. Apparently to Elon, ‘power to the people’ is just ‘power to the people that pay’ – and lots simply won’t, with users beginning to look to other sites to replace Twitter following Musk’s announcements, such as the German site Mastodon.

This entire saga has not just exposed some embarrassing business decisions from Musk, but also just how hollow his previous statements regarding his motivation behind buying and overhauling Twitter were. Musk said he wanted a free speech platform and that he didn’t buy Twitter “to make more money”, but instead “to help humanity”. Yet he hopes to achieve this by charging users money, reducing moderation of potentially harmful content, and actively suppressing the accounts of those who don’t pay.

When Twitter accepted Musk’s bid in April, I wrote about Musk being aware of how much owning the platform would benefit him personally – not just financially, but in terms of self-promotion, self-moderation, and allowing him to easily shut down critics. Musk doesn’t really care about free speech (unless it benefits him of course), nor does he care about “helping humanity”. With his new version of Twitter, he’s looking out for his own self-interest. Whether Musk’s moves will truly see a mass migration of users to alternative sites remains to be seen, but either way, there’s much change ahead for Twitter under its new CEO.