"What a sad, muddled place this has become": The madness of Twitter's blue checkpocalypse

Elon Musk's concept of democracy is forcing unwanted blue checks on random celebs, Muppets and dead folks

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published April 25, 2023 12:00PM (EDT)

Stephen King, Chrissy Teigen and LeBron James (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Twitter)
Stephen King, Chrissy Teigen and LeBron James (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Twitter)

The Twitter accounts for Miss Piggy and Kermit the Frog have blue checks. Fellow Muppets ElmoCookie Monster and Big Bird do not.

Stephen King and LeBron James declared they wouldn't pay for the blue check that comes with a Twitter Blue subscription, but Elon Musk gifted them with one anyway. Musk gave a gratis blue badge to Chrissy Teigen too, but she navigated her way out of it, only to have Twitter find her again and reassign it. 

It did the same to "Weird Twitter" notable @dril after he and other super-users mounted a campaign urging non-badged users – which currently refers to most who remain on the platform following the April 20 purge – to block accounts that have paid for Twitter Blue subscriptions.

But since Saturday, when reassigned/Elon-gifted blue checkmarks reappeared on many accounts with more than a million followers, differentiating between those paying $8 a month for Twitter Blue "verification" and those who didn't is now a lot tougher.

Before the banishment of the legacy verification system, most users decided they wouldn't be handing over $8 a month to a self-aggrandizing bigot.

Except, maybe, for the accounts associated with formerly "blue check official" and currently deceased stars Anthony Bourdain, Barbara Walters, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Walker and Kobe Bryant, among others. It is physically impossible for any of them to have subscribed to Twitter Blue since that would require having verified their phone number.

Unless Musk is beta testing some type of necromancy technology and got it to work – neither scenario is likely – that did not happen.

Before the banishment of the legacy verification system, most users decided they wouldn't be handing over $8 a month to a self-aggrandizing bigot who took a platform that, despite its flaws, once served as a social hub and a connection to breaking news and innovative ideas, and turned it into a glitchy morass of terrible ads and unfettered trolls.

The billionaire also obviously underestimated the level of pushback he'd receive from stars who resent Twitter lying about their subscriber status. Currently, the boilerplate text describing the blue check reads, "This account is verified because they are subscribed to Twitter Blue and verified their phone number."

"I did not pay for Twitter blue you f**king pig," RuPaul's Drag Race All Stars" winner Trixie Mattel tweeted on April 22.

"On my soul i didn't pay for twitter blue, u will feel my wrath tesla man," vowed Lil Nas X.

Others such as Neil Gaiman were more measured in expressing their dismay. "For the curious, I'm not subscribed to Twitter Blue," he told his followers. "I haven't given anyone my phone number. What a sad, muddled place this has become."

Gaiman tweeted this after his response to Stephen King's April 20 tweet in which he announced, "My Twitter account says I've subscribed to Twitter Blue. I haven't. My Twitter account says I've given a phone number. I haven't."

"The Sandman" author replied to King's tweet with, "Now we're tickless! It's sort of liberating," only to have a "tick" appear next to his handle shortly afterward.

This development in the ongoing Twitter Blue debacle is the latest evidence of the ways Twitter continues to devolve. Someday this chapter may be viewed as fascinating for its obliviousness and, from a public relations standpoint, its recklessness.

Musk is trying the classic promotional strategy of giving free perks to rich people in exchange for their scintillating content.

The long-anticipated mass removal of blue checkmarks from legacy verified accounts arrived during a particularly unfortunate week for Musk and his companies. On April 19 Tesla's subpar earnings report caused the stock to plummet. On the same day as the checkpocalyse, a SpaceX rocket exploded minutes after its launch.

Before these stumbles, Musk picked needless battles with public media, including NPR, PBS, the BBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, by slapping misleading labels on their Twitter accounts identifying them as "government-funded media."

After NPR, PBS, and CBC suspended activity on their main Twitter accounts and affiliated ones, Twitter quietly removed those labels. As of Monday evening, none had resumed tweeting.

Associating celebrities with Twitter Blue subscriptions they didn't pay for and may not want is quickly turning into another brand liability for the platform Musk reportedly plans to transform into an "everything" app.

Before Musk took over Twitter, its system of verifying accounts was aimed at protecting the integrity of the platform and its users. If an organization or an individual's account had a blue checkmark, that meant they'd been vetted by Twitter's staff, which confirmed that those accounts were being run by the entities they claimed to be.

This made it harder for trolls to spoof celebrity or organizational accounts or impersonate well-known users, including politicians, journalists, and other notable public figures, for malicious purposes.

It was also viewed as a status symbol, although if you ever had a blue check you know how little your life changed before and after its appearance and disappearance. Regardless, in November 2022 Musk deemed this old verification identifier to be the mark of a "lords & peasants system," even though said system was enacted because actual "lords" complained about how easy it was for someone to impersonate them on the platform.

The manager of St. Louis Cardinals even sued Twitter in 2009 over that issue, leading them to introduce the account verification system.

Musk's vow to democratize Twitter by offering verification to anyone willing to pay for a Twitter Blue subscription would rewind it back to that era, only now with the grand bonus of derision and blocking.

But Musk's concept of what constitutes democracy is way off of what it is by definition, hence this classic "all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others" move.

Musk is trying the classic promotional strategy of giving free perks to rich people in exchange for their scintillating content. Similar to the way casinos offer access to V.I.P. tables if you purchase bottle service while actual V.I.P.s are ensconced in more exclusive areas without having to pay for that benefit, Musk may be under the misguided notion that providing free checkmark status to the famous will coax formerly verified commoners to pay for that once-sought-after sticker.

This fails to consider an important differentiator. Millions of people love Vegas or at the very least are willing to tolerate it, whereas the number of people who despise Musk with a white-hot passion is much larger than the cult that adores him.

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As for the "verified" dead, a few users have pointed out that some were badged anew without the consent of their estates or loved ones. "The privately-held Twitter corporation is claiming that @chadwickboseman and @normmacdonald, who died in 2020 and 2021 respectively, have paid for the subscription check mark service and supplied their phone numbers," pointed out @southpaw on April 22. "I guess the Boseman Foundation which uses Chadwick's account theoretically could've done it, but Norm's account has been dormant since a few months before his passing."

All of this shows how haphazardly these blue checkmarks have been distributed, along with the cattiness with which some of them have been applied. A few celebrities are elated to have their free verified status restored, such as Charlie Sheen.

Others like Teigen and @dril found themselves making an effort to outrun the platform's attempt to cuff verification badges onto them despite their insistence that they didn't want them.

Still others, along with legal experts, are wondering aloud whether Twitter's false explanation about their subscriber status is illegal, citing statutes about false endorsement claims. But since many re-verified celebrities continue to use the platform without complaint, it may be difficult to make that case.

One famous user who had his verification status stripped was Pope Francis, who has since been assigned a gray check, distinguishing @Pontifex as "a government or multilateral organization account." This may be one of the savvier moves Twitter has made of late. If there's one influencer you don't want to anger, it's the man who millions believe has God's ear. And this situation needs all the prayers it can get.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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