LOS ANGELES — A wave of new paid blue tick accounts impersonating influential individuals and brands has led to chaos and confusion on Twitter.
Fake “verified” accounts in the names of politicians, celebrities, major organizations and businesses started appearing on the platform on Thursday.
Twitter suspended many of them, but the company’s rapidly changing attempts to address the issue added to the confusion.
Experts had previously warned that the new Twitter Blue subscription service announced by new chief Elon Musk, which allows users to pay £6.99 ($7.99) per month for a blue tick, would be immediately exploited by bad actors and scammers, and erode trust in the platform.
The extent of the problem with new fake blue tick accounts was laid bare after the feature launched on Wednesday.
Blue tick versions of major brand accounts such as Apple, Nintendo, BP and Chiquita were suspended.
Fake accounts posing as high-profile individuals like Meta chief Mark Zuckerberg, current and former US Presidents Joe Biden, Donald Trump and George W Bush, and former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair were also removed.
In one case, an account in the name of Republican candidate for Arizona governor Kari Lake tweeted to announce she was conceding to her Democratic opponent, despite the fact votes are still being counted in the tight race.
It took hours for Twitter to remove the tweet and the fake account.
A fake Tesla account, another company owned by Musk, joked about 9/11, while Musk himself was impersonated.
One of the most disruptive accounts impersonated US pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, and declared “insulin is free now”.
The company had to distance itself from the fake announcement.
The paid blue tick system is also being exploited by conspiracy theorists and far-right activists.
The BBC has seen at least three well-known QAnon influencer accounts, which have purchased blue ticks on Twitter.
Far-right activists Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, who organized the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, have both purchased blue ticks.
Twitter had previously removed verification badges from the accounts of Kessler and Spencer after the violent rally five years ago.
Researchers also spotted a variety of accounts with purchased blue ticks using AI generated images of fake personalities.
This is a specific area of concern as such inauthentic accounts are routinely used in influence operations, at times by foreign states with the aim of influencing political events in other countries.
Twitter suspended many of the imposter blue tick accounts, but at times struggled to keep up with the pace of new ones appearing.
New grey “official” badges were added under the handles of some high-profile accounts, before being scrapped by Musk almost immediately.
However, on Friday new grey official badges began reappearing on some Twitter profiles.
And some users based in the US reported the Twitter Blue subscription system was no longer available to them.
Musk himself initially said blue tick parody accounts of high-profile users would have to clarify that they are not genuine in their profile bios.
Later he declared the word parody would also need to be included in account names, adding that “tricking people is not OK”.
As of now, it is still unclear how Musk and his newly acquired platform plan to address the issue of blue tick impersonations in the long run.
While the issue of verified accounts temporarily changing their names in ways which might mislead had previously surfaced on the platform, such attempts were extremely rare.
Experts worry that the harm caused by a lack of trust in Twitter’s verification system could come to the fore during events such as mass shootings, terrorist attacks or natural disasters, where Twitter is often used by local authorities, police, emergency services and journalists for accurate information and advice.
The BBC reached to Twitter for comment, but received no response. — BBC