Editorials, Opinion

Misinformation got an $8 upgrade

When Elon Musk purchased Twitter, he was quick to lay off staff, scare off advertisers (though not intentionally) and whine about possible bankruptcy.

As part of his (not-well-thought-out) plan to keep the social media giant afloat, Musk and Twitter started selling blue verification check marks for $8 a month in a program called Twitter Blue.

Previously, the bright blue check marks next to a person’s name on Twitter meant the user was actually who they said they were: “Elon Musk” is actually Elon Musk (@elonmusk), “Senator Joe Manchin” is actually Joe Manchin (@Sen_JoeManchin) and “Fox News” is actually Fox News (@FoxNews). But now that anyone can buy a “verified account” blue check, pretty much anyone can use the screen name “Elon Musk” or “Joe Manchin” or “Fox News,” the same profile picture but a different Twitter handle and pretend it’s a legitimate account.

For example, a fake “verified” account pretending to be the pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly tweeted that insulin would be free; a fake blue-checked Tesla account tweeted about using child labor.

Twitter responded by suspending Twitter Blue and adding an additional gray and white “Official” check mark to companies’ and public figures’ accounts. While some fake accounts have been suspended and some tweets deleted, many are still active and circulating disinformation.

Social media has always been a go-to news source for many people, but it’s been a treacherous landscape of misinformation, half-truths and outright lies for just as long: doctored photos, misleading memes, pretend news sites and little to no accountability for spreading falsehoods.

But there are things we can do to vet the information we encounter on social media:

  • On Twitter, look for the new “Official” badge on the account to make sure the tweet came from the person or company it says it does.
  • Check for the same information in multiple reputable sources; if the Associated Press, The New York Times and The Washington Examiner, for example, all have the same information about an event or a person, it’s most likely true. Not so much if the sources are a gossip magazine, someone’s blog and an anonymous Facebook group.
  • Use fact-checking sites like Snopes.com or FactCheck.org to verify claims and information.
  • Be aware of confirmation bias; we can be predisposed to believing something is true because it reaffirms what we already believe to be true or want to be true.

We should always be careful about the information we see and read online, particularly on social media. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter are designed to keep users engaged and on the platform for as long as possible so they can harvest data to sell to advertisers and show paid ads to users. To do this, social media sites use algorithms to show users more of what they engage with or linger over — click-baity headlines, outrageous images, divisive memes, etc.

The algorithm doesn’t care about what’s true and what’s not — it only cares about what keeps us using the site. Which is why it is up to users to be more discerning about the content we are consuming.

Unfortunately, Twitter’s “democratized” (in Musk’s words) blue check mark has made a difficult task even harder.