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Ed Markey, Elon Musk spar over Twitter verification system

"You're spending your time picking fights online. Fix your companies. Or Congress will."

(Left) Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. (Right) Elon Musk (L) Al Drago/Pool Photo via AP (R) Win McNamee/Getty Images

Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey and Elon Musk continued to trade barbs Sunday, extending a feud that began a few days earlier regarding Twitter’s verification system. 

The conflict started Friday when Markey called out Musk for “putting profits over people and his debt over stopping disinformation.” The senator’s comments came after he gave a Washington Post columnist permission to impersonate him on Twitter. 

Musk, the world’s richest person and the new head of Twitter, responded a few days later on the platform. He ironically asked if the ease with which the columnist could impersonate Markey was because his “real account sounds like a parody.”

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Markey responded soon after.

“One of your companies is under an FTC consent decree. Auto safety watchdog NHTSA is investigating another for killing people. And you’re spending your time picking fights online. Fix your companies. Or Congress will,” he wrote on Twitter. 

This back-and-forth is the latest development in Twitter’s ongoing move to monetize its blue checkmark verification system. Until recently, the symbols meant that Twitter had independently verified “active, notable, and authentic accounts of public interest.” 

One of Musk’s first moves after acquiring Twitter was to open up blue checkmark verification to anyone that signs up for Twitter Blue, a subscription service that costs $8 a month. Since then, impersonation has run rampant on the platform, with users able to secure blue checkmarks and post as if they were notable people and companies. 

This is a major problem, according to Markey. The senator, a longtime critic of Big Tech, sent a letter to Musk on Friday outlining his concerns. Markey wrote that Twitter’s previous verification system enabled users to be smart, discerning consumers of news and conversation. But that is no longer the case, he said. 

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“Your Twitter takeover, rapid and haphazard imposition of platform changes, removal of safeguards against disinformation, and firing of large numbers of Twitter employees have accelerated Twitter’s descent into the Wild West of social media. That is unacceptable,” Markey wrote in his letter to Musk. “Twitter and its leadership have a responsibility to the public to ensure the platform doesn’t become a breeding ground for manipulation and deceit.”

Markey then requested that Musk and Twitter leadership respond to a series of questions about the changes to the platform’s verification system and the internal steps Twitter takes to combat impersonation. 

The accounts that receive blue checkmarks from a Twitter Blue subscription will not undergo review to confirm that they meet the active, notable, and authentic criteria used in the previous process, according to the company. 

In his original piece for the Post, columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler outlined how he created the fake account and secured a blue checkmark in only a matter of minutes. Creativity, a credit card, and a smartphone were all Fowler needed, he wrote. The account Fowler created has been suspended in the days since. 

The changes to Twitter’s verification system, and the ensuing rash of impersonators, created widespread confusion on the platform. Last week, Forbes reported that the company appeared to be suspending Twitter Blue signups amid the chaos. 

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Twitter now says that accounts created on or after Nov. 9 will be temporarily unable to subscribe to Twitter Blue. The company also said that to minimize impersonation risks, display name changes are being temporarily restricted on verified accounts. This will impact both accounts verified under the legacy program and those with checkmarks from new Twitter Blue subscriptions.

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