X’s check mark policy is fueling disinformation

Aug 22, 2023 in Combating Mis- and Disinformation
X logo on a grey dice and black background

Since X, formerly known as Twitter, launched in 2006, journalists have used the platform to interact with followers and crowdsource information for their reporting. 

However, when the platform turned its legacy check marks into a paid service in April – no longer taking into account users’ activity, notability or authenticity – it made it significantly more difficult to distinguish credible sources from impersonators or hoaxes. Previously Twitter Blue, this paid subscription service is called X Premium today.

"[X] is [quickly] becoming a verified place for unverified users,” said Ewuji Precious, a freelance Nigerian journalist. “To some extent, people may want to believe those with the verification ticks, regardless of the authenticity of whatever they post or tweet, much more than unverified journalists.”

Here’s what journalists should know about these new policies and how they are fueling the spread of mis- and disinformation.

The new blue check policy and disinformation

In the past, X users applied for a legacy check mark through a free verification request process, which required that accounts be "authentic, notable and active." Government officials and entities, celebrities, activists, news organizations, journalists and more all often were approved for the check marks.

“The blue tick was a sign to show that these are verified users and therefore they can be trusted,” said Bettie Mbayo, a fact-checker and the co-founder of Stage Media in Liberia. In contrast, today any user can pay $8 per month to have a blue check mark attached to their name.

False information has proliferated since. A study by the Center for Countering Digital Hate’s Quant Lab, for instance, found that more than 25% of tweets related to Ukraine, vaccines and climate change by X Premium subscribers contained false information.

There have already been real-world consequences due to the misinformation that has been able to spread. During the conflict in Sudan, the country’s main paramilitary force, Rapid Support Forces (RSF)’s legacy check mark was removed. A fake account with a blue check mark posed as the militant group and falsely claimed the death of its leader, Mohamed Dagalo. This post received 1.7 million views within a short period of time. The false account was later taken down.

In another example, several fake accounts posed as Kenyan news and entertainment TV channel, Citizen TV Kenya, and posted false information. One of the fake accounts, which was later suspended, claimed that Dr. SK Macharia, founder and chairman of Royal Media Services, which owns the TV channel, was pronounced dead. The post spread until Citizen TV Kenya debunked it on X and Facebook.

“The [X] algorithm works by prioritizing people with [X Premium], so you get to be on top of spaces. When you comment or tweet you tend to get visibility,” said Alfred Olufemi, a journalist at the Nigerian newspaper, PUNCH.

Combating mis- and disinformation on X

As journalists are faced with more false information on X, it’s imperative that they take extra precautions with what they share. “[Journalists] should avoid engaging in activism and spreading their biases, as it could dent their credibility, which is a core value,” said Lois Ugbede, a fact-checker at Dubawa

Ugbede urged journalists to “verify their information before sharing,” in order to maintain the trust of other users and avoid spreading misinformation. “People share tweets because they feel the information contained in the tweet is true,” she said. “One way this can be checked is for journalists to know the source of the information and have networks (e.g. the Africa Fact Network, a network of fact-checking organizations in Africa) where they can get information.” 

Journalists can also utilize tools like Spoonbill, Pipl.com, AI Detector and others, to verify the authenticity of information on X, said Busola Ajibola, the deputy director of the Centre for Journalism Innovation and Development’s Journalism Program.  

"These tools help to identify certain information by [X] users and most times, it helps to expose who is behind the tweets and how authentic the account is,” she said. “More helpful is knowing the location and date the accounts were created to help identify if it is a parody or trusted account."

Photo by Bastian Riccardi on Unsplash.