Twitter verification crisis puts brands — not necessarily traffic — at risk

By Peter Bale

INMA

New Zealand and the U.K.

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The ongoing dumpster fire since Elon Musk took over at Twitter has exposed leading brands — including some news publishers — to the risk of serious brand damage.

However, several senior editors told me they’re less worried about the damage to traffic since Twitter — while immensely popular with journalists and a big source of breaking news — was relatively insignificant as a contributor to digital engagement.

“Twitter is a platform in flux, with many leaving for alternatives, and we get an infinitesimal amount of traffic from it,” one North American news leader told me.

Another, from Scandinavia, noted that most titles there enjoyed mostly direct traffic, noting: “We use very few resources on Twitter.”

Risk to media brands

But the risks to brands are significant with major brands finding imposters — verified as real with the blue badge and white tick on Twitter since Musk took over — spreading costly disinformation and in once case, pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, contributing to big share price fall.

One senior editor, who had flagged the risk to brands and publishers alike, made a point of sending me a Tweet from a fake-but-verified account supposedly from Lockheed Martin saying it was halting arms sales to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States, “until further investigation into their record of human rights abuses.”

Fake-but-verified accounts are popping up on Twitter.
Fake-but-verified accounts are popping up on Twitter.

fake-but-verified Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Twitter account popped up in the past week, offering national and international news alerts.

Advertisers and their agencies have suspended or withdrawn campaigns from Twitter since the Musk takeover, declaring it no longer a safe environment for their brands — not just because of imposters but because of a documented surge in hate speech and a return of toxic accounts.

WPP, Omnicom, and big brands have all warned that Twitter may no longer be safe.

“Based on the news of additional senior management resignations from key posts, high-profile examples of blue check abuse on corporate accounts, and the potential inability for Twitter to comply with their federal consent decree, GroupM’s Twitter risk assessment is increased to a high-risk rating for all tactics,” Digiday quoted WPP-owned GroupM in a note to clients.

Musk has suspended his plan to roll out a paid verification system under the Twitter Blue umbrella, which was originally about subscriptions, some news sources, and the famous edit button. He now says the revised Twitter Blue should launch on November 29. He’s also cut back on applying the word “official” to many verified accounts, including news media.

There may be some room for media owners to capitalise on the advertising crisis by reinforcing their properties as safer homes for brands, but there remain immense risks of publishers who face their brands and staff being spoofed at the best of times—  even before fake verification emerged as a problem in the past week. 

Paid verification

Many journalists — me included — were assigned the verified badges over the course of years, not to enhance their own status but to increase reliability. Twitter recognised it gained value from verification given the popularity of the network among journalists and the extremely fast and vital nature of the platform. It is worth remembering that before Twitter, only the likes of Reuters and Bloomberg really had the capability of almost instantaneous transmission of news.

Several leading editors from around the world told me they expected they would pay for verification but only if it really was as robust as it had been before Musk took over. Several also said they would probably pay for reporters to retain existing verified labels. One in a developing country said that while their brand accounts were verified, none of their reporters were.

“Our company said theyd pick up the tab for verification,” one North American news leader told me. “But the real question is: What is the value of that? I mean if anyone can pay a few bucks and get verified…”

The question, of course, remains exactly that open.

“Twitter is not a major Web acquisition driver. We will continue to put in the same amount of energy,” said a senior editor from a publication in Africa. “There is concern around the possibility of Twitter launching a pay model to maintain the verification. This is something we would have to consult about. For the brand, it could be something we consider paying for.”

Some journalists — me included — have started creating profiles on the Mastodon platform, a not-for-profit and highly distributed network with many niche layers and segments, including a number of newly created cells evidently created to serve increasing numbers of journalists.

In his newsletter, Danish media analyst Thomas Baekdal describes some of the potential pitfalls of the decentralised Mastodon network. Here’s a guide to Mastodon from the Washington Post. The excellent Lawfare Blog has a detailed explanation of how Mastodon works.

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About Peter Bale

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