Twitter’s verification system debacle has had more twists than a Stephen King novel—fitting, given that the author has been at the center of yet another storm on the platform. A “legacy” verified user because of his fame as a horror novelist, King likely expected to lose his blue check mark on April 20, the date Twitter’s owner, Elon Musk, announced he planned to remove the demarcation from all legacy users.
But while those around him were losing their blue ticks, King kept his. It soon emerged that Musk had chosen the writer and two others—NBA star LeBron James and Star Trek actor William Shatner—to receive the blue check for free. Those new blue checks come with a label saying: “This account is verified because they are subscribed to Twitter Blue and verified their phone number.” King objected. “My Twitter account says I’ve subscribed to Twitter Blue,” he tweeted. “I haven’t. My Twitter account says I’ve given a phone number. I haven’t.”
More confusion followed as Twitter backtracked on Musk’s put-up-or-shut up approach to verification. It now appears any legacy Twitter user with more than a million followers before April 20 has had their check mark reinstated, along with a note saying they’ve paid for it. Many profess they haven’t, which, if true, could open Twitter to a host of legal problems.
“There are a number of potential legal claims we could see over Twitter assigning blue checks to accounts that did not sign up for them and do not want them,” says Alexandra Roberts, professor of law and media at Northeastern University. “Given that the blue checks purport to be for users that are subscribed to Twitter Blue and verified their phone number.”
Among the laws Twitter could be in breach of, Roberts says, are federal laws prohibiting false advertising or endorsement and state laws against unfair competition claims, as well as suits over defamation and misappropriation of right of publicity. Any cases under these laws (“none is a slam dunk,” according to Roberts) would need to prove that Twitter’s false claim that celebrities had paid for Blue constitutes an endorsement of the service or commercial use by the platform, or that consumers seeing them would be misled.
Some scholars think it’s possible to make that case.
“What Musk is doing in paying for some celebrities to retain a blue tick can be considered as an unfair or deceptive practice because it creates an impression to the public—including consumers—that these specific celebrities are endorsing Twitter’s business models,” says Catalina Goanta, associate professor in law, economics, and governance at Utrecht University School of Law. “Only LeBron James or William Shatner have the right to make use of their own public personas and images.”
Twitter Blue’s launch has not been a resounding success. It is reportedly making Twitter less than 1 percent of its targeted annual revenue. Twitter did not respond to a request for comment on this story beyond sending an automated poop emoji response.
By imposing blue ticks on unwilling users, Twitter might have also opened itself up to regulatory action.
“The US, EU, and UK have similar rules in this respect, prohibiting unfair and deceptive practices that may manipulate consumers and affect markets,” says Goanta.
The Federal Trade Commission Act outlaws deceptive acts or practices affecting commerce—claiming countless celebrities and well-known individuals have paid for a subscription to Twitter Blue when they haven’t seems a pretty good example of this. “It’s also possible we’ll see some agency action,” she says. The FTC declined to comment.
The platform could face similar action in the UK, under “passing off” laws, says Andres Guadamuz, a law and technology academic specializing in intellectual property at the University of Sussex. Because the check mark implies the bearer has paid for the service, “it is misrepresentation,” says Guadamuz.
Given the widespread disdain on Twitter for people who have paid for verification, celebrities could also make a case that their reputations have been damaged.
“Any celebrities wanting to troll Musk back should be seriously thinking about calling their lawyers,” Guadamuz says. “This could be a very strong case.”
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Tracy Wen Liu
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