Twitter has long been a way for people to keep track of tornado watches, train delays, news alerts, or the latest crime alerts from the local police department.
But when the Elon Musk-owned platform this week began removing blue verification checkmarks from accounts that don’t pay a monthly fee, it left public agencies and other organizations around the world scrambling to find a way to prove they are trustworthy and avoid imitators.
High-profile users who lost their blue checks on Thursday included Beyonc, Pope Francis, Oprah Winfrey and former President Donald Trump. But controls have also been removed from the accounts of major public transit systems from San Francisco to Paris, national parks like Yosemite, official weather trackers, and some elected officials.
Twitter had around 400,000 verified users under the original blue check system. In the past, checks meant that Twitter verified that users were who they said they were.
While Twitter now offers gold checks for verified organizations and gray checks for government organizations and their affiliates, it wasn’t always clear why some accounts had them on Friday and others didn’t.
Fake accounts claiming to represent Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the city’s Department of Transportation and the Illinois Department of Transportation all began sharing messages early Friday falsely claiming that Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, a thoroughfare will close to private traffic starting next month.
A critical eye could spot clear indications of fraud. The account handles are slightly different than the authentic ones representing Lightfoot and the transport agencies. The fakes also had far fewer followers.
But the fakes used the same photos, bio text, and home page links as the real ones.
Genuine Lightfoot and transit agency accounts didn’t have a blue or gray check as of Friday. The Lightfoots office said the city is aware of the fake accounts and is working with Twitter to resolve the matter. At least one was suspended on Friday.
Most of the accounts maintained by the Portland city government went unverified Friday, with the exception of the Portland Police Bureau and Portland Fire & Rescue, both of which sported gray checks. The Oregon State Police have been similarly verified, while other state-run accounts have not.
TriMet, the Portland-area transit agency, had a blue check in its main account. A spokesperson said he paid $8 a month to maintain the extra layer of security provided by two-factor authentication on the account.
A number of agencies said they are waiting for more clarity from Twitter, which has drastically reduced its staff since Musk bought the San Francisco-based firm for $44 billion last year. The confusion has raised concerns that Twitter could lose its status as a platform for obtaining accurate and up-to-date information from authentic sources, even in the event of an emergency.
As a tornado was about to hit central New Jersey earlier this month, an information baseline account was maintained by the National Weather Service branch in Mount Holly, New Jersey. It had a blue check at the time. It no longer has any checks, although the NWS Main Account and some other regional branches now have a gray checkmark marking them as Official Accounts.
Susan Buchanan, public affairs director for the Weather Service, said the agency is applying to get the gray check for government agencies. She declined to answer because some regional branches of the NWS have lost their marks and others have.
Costs to maintain brands range from $8 a month for individual web users to a starting price of $1,000 a month to verify an organization, plus $50 a month for each affiliate or employee account. But the meaning of the blue checkmark has changed to symbolize that the user has purchased a premium account which can help their tweets be seen by more people. It also includes other features like the ability to edit tweets.
Celebrity users, from basketball star LeBron James to Stephen King and Star Treks author William Shatner, refused to join even though all three still had blue checks on Friday after Musk said he paid them himself.
For users who still had a blue checkmark, a popup message said that the account is verified because they are signed up for Twitter Blue and have verified their phone number. Verifying a phone number simply means that the person has a phone number and has verified that they have access to it, but it doesn’t confirm the person’s identity.
According to an analysis by Travis Brown, a Berlin-based social media monitoring software developer, less than 5% of verified legacy accounts appear to have paid to join Twitter Blue.
Musk’s move to end what he called the lords and peasants system for those with or without a blue check has angered some high-profile users and pleased some right-wing figures and Musk fans who thought signs were unfair. But that’s not an obvious gain for the social media platform that has long relied on advertising for the bulk of its revenue.
Promised for weeks, the mass removal of thousands of blue checks was accompanied by a surprise move to drop labels that portrayed some media organizations as government-funded or state-affiliated. Musk at first defended a policy that lumped public radio and television stations in the United States and other democracies with state-affiliated media outlets in Russia and China, and then abruptly switched the language, but now Twitter has removed the unexplained labels. The changes come after National Public Radio and other channels have already stopped using Twitter.
While some prominent users said they would stop using Twitter for blue checks, many public agencies appeared to be sticking with the service.
When asked on Friday about the German government’s continued use of Twitter, spokeswoman Christiane Hoffmann said: Of course we are watching very closely what is happening on Twitter and are constantly asking ourselves whether it is right to have channels there and how they should continue.
Hoffmann said the government was concerned about developments on Twitter in recent weeks and months, adding that ministries, spokesmen and chancellor Olaf Scholz now have gray ticks that nothing is being paid for.
Minneapolis city officials applied about three weeks ago for a gray check on the city’s main Twitter account and received approval Thursday.
Jordan Gilgenbach, the city’s digital communications coordinator, said he plans to look for the same for other city-operated accounts, including the health department which hasn’t had any check marks since Friday, but said Twitter’s system to evaluate and decide which accounts qualify has never been really clear. .
From an active shooter situation or a weather event, or even more routine things like snowstorms, it’s always a challenge even with verification to combat misinformation and rumors, Gilgenbach said. This will only make it more difficult.
— Matt O’Brien and Kathleen Foody, Associated Press
O’Brien reported from Providence, Rhode Island. AP Technology writer Barbara Ortutay in San Francisco and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this report. The Oregonian/OregonLive contributed local news.