News Opinion

Saying Goodbye to Twitter Trust

By Ellie Winslow

Well, Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter wound up being significantly more catastrophic than I predicted only a few weeks ago. Just before Musk finalized his $44 billion acquisition of Twitter, which is worth roughly $9B now, I anticipated how dangerous his leadership of the “de facto townsquare” could be. I hypothesized that in the best case scenario, Elon Musk would take on another business venture to have some benign fun amidst his predominantly technical work. I chose to take a cautiously optimistic outlook considering the success that has helped Elon Musk amass the title of richest man in the world. However, I never could have predicted that the worst case scenario would occur and it, in fact, would not involve the total shutdown of Twitter (yet).

Four days after Elon Musk forked over $44B for Twitter, he sold his audience on the concept of buying Twitter verification for $8 per month. The idea was to free Twitter from its “current lords & peasants system” by bringing “power to the people” for a small monthly price. Historically, verification, or the blue checkmark, on social media platforms has denoted the legitimacy of the public figures, organizations, or government officials the accounts represent. This icon helps users differentiate the real people or companies from imposters on the app. Elon Musk’s grand plan was to grant any Twitter user verification in addition to other perks like more engagement and fewer ads. 

The blowback from this scheme has been nothing short of devastating. As soon as users were able to pay for verification, they began impersonating famous people and organizations by changing their names and images to mirror those of the real accounts. Not only were these users not who they said they were, but the tweets they shared starkly opposed the actual stances by these groups. One of the most costly tweets was posted by a verified account that impersonated Eli Lilly and Company, a major pharmaceutical corporation, tweeting, “we are excited to announce insulin is free now”. Eli Lilly is one of the few major insulin producers in the United States, and they have been under fire for years over the expense of the critical medication for individuals living with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. The price of insulin for Type 1 diabetes doubled between 2012 and 2016, totalling $5,705 per year. This tweet by a fake Eli Lilly account was seen by thousands of Twitter users, and subsequently, the company lost billions of dollars in market capitalization. 

It is much easier to lose someone’s trust than it is to build it back, and in less than 30 days of ownership, Elon Musk has made many users distrustful of the information they read on Twitter. A major campaign by Twitter leaders in recent years (before Musk) has been to thwart misinformation and disinformation within the platform. Musk has blown this up by firing thousands of Twitter employees and installing an $8 payment plan that increases disinformation campaigns. 

On Monday, November 14th, the world learned about a shooting that took place on the campus of the University of Virginia that left three UVA student-athletes dead, and two individuals wounded. I was a prospective student-athlete for UVA in 2016, so this tragedy hit particularly close to home as it took the lives of three fellow student-athletes on a campus that holds a place in my heart. Devin Chandler, D’Sean Perry and Lavel Davis Jr. deserved to see many more days than they had. On the night of the shooting, students at UVA were unsure if they could trust a verified UVA Emergency Management Twitter account that was sharing information about an active shooter on campus. Many universities use Twitter to share information on issues ranging from road closures and power outages, to the worst cases about active shooters on campus. In the late hours of November 13th, UVA Emergency Management tweeted: “ACTIVE ATTACKER firearm reported in area… RUN HIDE FIGHT,” to which users responded, “there’s no way to know which Twitter accounts are real anymore”. Other users responded to tweets by UVA Emergency Management updates with responses like “do not take info reported on Twitter at face value.” Critical, potentially life-saving moments when students needed to be sheltered in place were lost when the platform, that is known for getting important information out fast, was not reliable.

Elon Musk was not prepared to lead this valuable democratic instrument. Saying that “Twitter will do lots of dumb things in the coming months,” is not a good excuse.

To read more about the beautiful lives of Lavel Davis Jr., Devin Chandler, and D’Sean Perry, click this link.

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