Tiffany Fong has followed me on Twitter. This is not the first time the glamorous influencer, famous for her nocturnal meetings with disgraced FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried, has done so.
By now, I know the drill. I will follow her back and five minutes later, she will message me with an offer in poor English to help me make daily trades.
Last week, it was Molly White, the software engineer and crypto sceptic, who tried to sell me on bot trading.
Before that, I was approached by Brett Redfearn, the former influential director of the division of trading and markets at the Securities and Exchange Commission who spent some time at Coinbase in 2021. Redfearn wanted to share how he got 210% ROI on arbitrage trading.
Of course, none of those people were who they said they were. All social media is ripe for exploitation by impersonators and Twitter, even at the best of times, is no exception. But fact-checkers say that the problem has exploded ever since Elon Musk bought the site, with hoaxers and impostors of all kinds exploiting the new blue-check verification system.
The Elon effect
The blue checks were originally intended to verify that notable figures were who they claimed to be, but when Musk bought Twitter in October 2022 for $44 billion, he said they created an aristocracy of experts. Musk’s way of levelling the playing field was to provide a blue check to anyone who was willing to stump up $8.
The problem is that the tick no longer functions as a hallmark of trust. That was apparent as soon as Twitter Blue was first launched and had to almost immediately be temporarily suspended after hoax accounts pretended to be everyone from Pope Francis to Lockheed Martin.
“With the $8 check mark, Twitter doesn’t do any deep analysis to verify anyone,” Tari Schreider, a strategic advisor at consultancy Aite-Novarica who specialises in cybersecurity, told DL News.
“You just pay the money and you get your little blue tick. Also, they laid off about 90% of their Indian staff, which were the teams doing the verifications and moderating content and researching fraud and so forth.”
Scams on Twitter run the gamut of sophistication. Most of the impersonation attacks, however, are probably fairly simple phishing expeditions, where perpetrators hope to get someone to click on a malware link or send crypto to a scammer’s wallet.
Crypto and DeFi Twitter users say they haven’t experienced more scams, whether by impersonators or otherwise, since Musk took over.
ZachXBT, an on-chain crypto sleuth, has about 357,500 followers on Twitter. He has unsurprisingly had some impersonators, accounts with botted followers and mainly reply bots commenting, he said.
“Have not had any issues with impersonators in a few months now,” he told DL News, adding there didn’t seem to be any increase in the number of scams since Musk took over.
If users are leaving Twitter, it’s more down to the current bear market, ZachXBT said.
The real Fong told DL News that she hadn’t noticed an increase in the number of people impersonating her, but added that it was difficult for her to make comparisons.
“It’s tough for me to tell because I only gained a following within the past few months, so I don’t know if the increase in impersonators has increased because of Elon or because I’ve gotten more attention lately,” she said.
The real White and real Redfearn did not respond to requests to comment.
Fact-checking made harder
The problem isn’t so much that there are more impersonators, but rather that it’s harder now to tell the difference. Impersonators can buy a blue tick. They can make the handles of their accounts appear identical to the ones they are impersonating.
Nina Lamparski has experienced this problem first-hand. She is a fact-checker for the Agence France-Presse, where she is head of digital investigation for Africa. She and her team cover African news and produce articles that take an empirical approach to journalism. Whereas a “normal” news story might report a politician’s speech, Lamparski’s team would write a story that countered inaccurate statements made during that speech, using a range of research and open source intelligence methods.
Twitter is one of the many tools Lamparski’s team uses to verify information, and find eyewitnesses and what fact-checkers call “user-generated content” like images, video and text.
Lamparski said that her team can no longer rely on the blue tick proving that someone is who they say they are.
“Having a blue check matters very little today, post-Musk,” she said. “One reason it did work in the past was that it distinguished people who had knowledge in their field from those who knew less about the issues.”
Having a blue check matters very little today, post-Musk
This is especially problematic during high-stakes events like elections, when fake accounts mushroom, she said.
“Musk’s actions on the blue check amplified and increased the risk of disinformation spreading,” Lamparski said. ”We know this for a fact. We have seen a huge number of fake accounts popping up on Twitter, way more than before.
Musk has ironically created a new hierarchy of blue checks, she argued. It’s possible to see whether a blue tick has been bought or is a “legacy” tick. You just have to click on it. The Twitter Blue ticks have less clout than the legacy ticks.
Twitter appeared to respond to the impersonation threat in late January, by making changes to its font. White tweeted that the new font made it easier to tell apart her real account’s handle from that of an impostor.
looks like twitter is making some attempts to cut down on impersonation accounts by using a new font for twitter handles. note the slashed 0 and the tail on the l. pic.twitter.com/NZRQxjS3XJ— Molly White (@molly0xFFF) January 26, 2023
Twitter did not respond to a request to confirm if this was the intended outcome of the font change.
Lamparski said Musk’s Twitter is part of a broader issue of faith in people like scientists and public health officials. Social media have amplified voices that mistrust these experts, which has led to a “dark worldview” among some people where every statement from such a figure has a hidden agenda, Lamparski continued.
“We’re now in this state where anything goes, and no one’s an expert anymore and all the official sources don’t count,” she said. “That’s the biggest issue that we find [as fact-checkers].”