Twitter Users Create Havoc by Impersonating Brands

The parody accounts were proliferating on Twitter.

After Elon Musk, Twitter’s new owner, revamped a subscription service to give users a coveted verification check mark for $8 a month, users began abusing the program this week. Twitter accounts with check marks posed as companies like Eli Lilly and PepsiCo, sending spoof messages about free insulin and the superiority of Coca-Cola. One account with a check mark pretended to be Tesla, Mr. Musk’s electric car company, and bragged about using child labor.

By Thursday night, the disorder on Twitter seemed to have become too much for Mr. Musk.

“We need to urgently roll out official labels for big advertisers due to impersonation,” a Twitter engineering manager wrote in an internal message seen by The New York Times. “Request is from Elon.”

Twitter, the so-called global town square, with about 240 million users, has descended in recent days into a messy swirl of accounts pretending to be high-profile brands and sending disruptive tweets. While Twitter has long contended with falsehoods and toxic speech, some users are exploiting the changes made by Mr. Musk — who took over the service last month in a $44 billion buyout — to gleefully sow chaos.

The impersonation and pranking could have serious consequences. Graham Brookie, a director at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensics Lab, which studies online misinformation, said the quality of information and the credibility of content on Twitter could suffer if fraudsters created confusion and amplified lies. People might get check marks on their accounts and spread falsehoods just to make a buck, he added.

“Selling the truth is dangerous and unacceptable,” Senator Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, wrote in a letter to Mr. Musk on Friday after a Washington Post reporter posed as the politician with a check mark on Twitter to show how easy it was. “Twitter must explain how this happened and how it will prevent it from happening again.

On Thursday night, Twitter Blue, the subscription service that people pay for to obtain a check mark, appeared to be paused. The check mark has long been a powerful symbol of authentication for celebrities, companies and politicians. It was previously free and was bestowed only after Twitter had verified the identity of the account holder.

Mr. Musk and Twitter did not comment on the status of Twitter Blue. But the 51-year-old billionaire appeared unrepentant about his changes and the activity on the platform. He said in a tweet early Friday that Twitter “hit all-time high of active users today.”

The disarray was the latest fallout of Mr. Musk’s ownership of Twitter. Since completing his takeover, Mr. Musk has laid off about half of Twitter’s 7,500 employees, told brands that he would engage in a “thermonuclear name & shame” if they cut off their advertising and warned that the company was doing so badly that its cash flow was negative and that it could be on the verge of bankruptcy. Employees, he said, need to be more “hard core.”

One of Mr. Musk’s solutions is to push for more subscription revenue, including charging $8 a month for Twitter Blue and letting those who pay get the check mark. The company began experimenting with Twitter Blue last year, charging users $5 a month for features like the ability to undo or edit posts and customize the app’s home screen.

Mr. Musk’s new Twitter Blue, which is available only in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, was rolled out last Saturday, but without features including the check marks. After deliberation about the spread of political misinformation, the company paused the debut of the check marks until after Tuesday’s midterm elections.

Mr. Musk also appeared cognizant of the dangers of impersonation on the service.

“Going forward, any Twitter handles engaging in impersonation without clearly specifying ‘parody’ will be permanently suspended,” he tweeted on Sunday after some Twitter users, including the comedian Kathy Griffin, changed their profile photos and display names to mimic his account. Ms. Griffin was later suspended from Twitter.

On Wednesday, accounts that had paid for the new Twitter Blue — among them parody accounts, conspiracy theorists and white nationalists, according to Media Matters for America — started to get their check marks. Some accounts soon ran amok.

One impostor account with a check mark masqueraded as Eli Lilly, tweeting on Thursday that the pharmaceutical company would provide free insulin to its customers. Eli Lilly’s stock tumbled more than 5 percent in morning trading on Friday and was still down more than 4 percent at the close.

Another account with a check mark pretended to be Nintendo of America, sending a tweet featuring the video game company’s Mario character making a rude hand gesture.

Targets of the pranksters rushed to disavow the bogus statements. A spokeswoman for Eli Lilly said in a statement that the company was working to correct the situation. A spokesman for Nintendo had no immediate comment.

To crack down on impersonators, Twitter said accounts created on or after Wednesday would be unable to subscribe to Twitter Blue. The company also briefly blocked users from changing their display names on the platform on Wednesday. Some users who had changed their names to make jokes discovered that they could not change their names back.

The rapper Doja Cat, who changed her display name to Christmas in anticipation of the holidays, told Mr. Musk in a tweet on Thursday that she didn’t want her display name to remain Christmas forever and asked for help.

After Mr. Musk replied that she could change it, Doja Cat renamed herself “Elon Musk,” violating his prohibition on impersonators. As of Friday afternoon, her Twitter display name read simply “fart.”

A representative for Doja Cat didn’t respond to requests for comment.

At Twitter, Richard Rabbat, vice president of product management, tweeted on Thursday that there was “a new context” for the check mark. “Why is it hard to understand?” he added.

By Thursday night, the confusion had become too much for Twitter. Shortly before midnight, the company said it would append an “Official” label to some accounts to “combat impersonation.” Less than 48 hours earlier, the company had said it would not add such a label.

An internal Twitter log seen by The Times showed that more than 140,000 accounts had signed up for the new Twitter Blue as of Thursday.

In one of his earliest tweets as the new boss, Mr. Musk wrote, “Comedy is now legal on Twitter.” But the Twitter pranksters did not draw laughs from many brands.

“The immediate future on this platform, which essentially is the news cycle, is pretty bleak from a disinformation standpoint,” Mr. Brookie said.

On Friday, the theater publication Playbill also said it would stop posting to its Twitter account, which has 412,000 followers. It said it would focus its social media efforts on Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.

“In recent weeks, Twitter has greatly expanded its tolerance for hate, negativity and misinformation,” Phil Birsh, Playbill’s chief executive, and Alex Birsh, its chief operating officer, said in a statement. “As a respected news outlet for the Broadway community, we feel we can no longer continue to utilize a platform where the line between actual news and insidious rhetoric has become blurred beyond recognition.”

Some Twitter users used the moment to drive engagement to their official accounts. The Washington State Department of Natural Resources joked on its account that the “Twitter wildfire is at 44 billion acres and 0 percent contained.”

Rachel Terlep, the social media manager who runs the account, said the tweet had generated more than 1,000 new followers for a related account that alerts users to wildfires in Washington.

Graydon Carter, the former editor of Vanity Fair, who skewered New York celebrities like Donald J. Trump as the editor of Spy Magazine in the 1980s, drew a distinction between clearly labeled satire on the internet and the wave of impostors hiding behind social media to wreak havoc on the reputations and share prices of legitimate entities.

“I’m a firm believer in identification on the internet,” Mr. Carter said. “You need a license for everything, including to own a dog in New York.”

Michael Paulson contributed reporting.


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