Some best-laid plans often go awry. Other plans just aren't very good. Musk's blue checkmark plan was just plain awful.
Who knew that if, as the newfound CEO of a huge social media company, you got rid of half of your staff, including most of your content moderation team, and many of your team leaders and experts then walked, you would be left with a hot mess?
People, including corporations and the people who run them, come to websites and social media platforms because of the moderation. Moderation can take on many forms, not just what people can, cannot, and shouldn’t say on the platforms, taking into account advertisers, copyright law, and how this works with perhaps problematic ideas of free speech. Different countries will have different ways in which all of this is interpreted and regulated.
Trying to appease those on the right in the US who demand First Amendment free speech rights will not necessarily work in the context of the rest of the world, and global corporations wishing to spend big money on your platform.
Nilay Patel, Editor-in-Chief at The Verge, recently discussed this in the context of Twitter and other platforms.
My thesis…is that the product a social network makes is content moderation. If you don’t recognize that early, you’re always going to be chasing after flashy features—filters or whatever—instead of realizing that the user experience that somebody opening your app is having is totally determined by a series of decisions you make that incentivize some content and disincentive other content.
He describes how CEOs aren’t in control of their apps, the users are. What CEOs can do is facilitate and encourage users to align their behavior with what the company wants.
An example of this is YouTube incentivizing content providers to produce longer videos so they could insert mid-roll advertising slots. By incentivizing what they want, they are moderating content. Patel gives the example that almost all YouTube videos are now at least ten minutes long (as opposed to that very limit they used to put on those videos) due to a decision that the company made. They prioritized a watch time on the platform so they wanted longer videos. How did they make everybody make longer videos? They effectively put a pot of gold at ten minutes.
“That’s content moderation. It’s straight up: the design of the product is content moderation,” Patel explains. “We don’t think about it that way because when we talk about content moderation, we think about taking stuff down or hate speech. But it is as much recommending content or incentivizing creators that fills in the boxes of the app. Elon has no plan to incentivize creators.”
Patel is almost exactly right. Except Musk had one idea. It just wasn’t very good.
Blue checkmarks or ticks have been used for some time on Twitter to signify that someone is who they really claim to be. Barack Obama is Barack Obama and not some parody account pretending to be him, and McDonald’s really is McDonald’s, so that you can rest assured that what they say about their Big Macs is what they want to say.
This feature is supremely important to journalists and academics who use Twitter in a very serious way. Twitter is a vital source for gathering information for many people in varying sectors, and in this era of “epistemic insecurity,” such features are pivotal for the successful navigation of this information space.
Musk’s bright idea to drive up revenue for the huge advertising sales losses they were suffering (in light of free speech advocates spreading hate on the platform) was to charge $8 per month for a blue checkmark. But the important point was that you could just apply for a checkmark and pay your money, and you would receive that moniker. After all, Twitter had lost half of its moderation staff—the people to verify such accounts.
This was to be one of the first big announcements to generate a huge amount of revenue. Yet it was just another example of someone seeing dollar signs before sense.
What everyone could see would happen…happened. And this illustrates, for all his other business acumen in different contexts, Elon Musk’s abject failure to be able to strategize and predict.
Within days of publicly announcing this new plan, fake accounts that could not be verified sprung up. Lockheed Martin announced they were no longer selling weapons to Saudi Arabia due to their human rights record.
When the internet wants to play, it sure can play, and sometimes the ramifications can be huge. $15 billion huge.
Last week, an account posing as pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly, with the Twitter handle @EliLillyandCo and using the company’s logo, together with the bought-and-paid-for blue checkmark tweeted the false claim: “We are excited to announce insulin is free now.”
This, of course, caused the markets to go into turmoil as investors thought that the big pharma corporation was taking a different economic course than the one they had envisaged.
While the corporation lost billions in value, Twitter users attacked them: “Apologize to diabetics for price gouging,” one Twitter user responded. In a similar vein, another tweeted: “Why don’t you make affordable insulin instead of apologizing?”
Then there was Bernie Sanders piling in:
To be joined by others:
Musk’s hasty revenue generator had backfired as Eli Lilly lost billions.
The blue checkmark debacle has been nothing but an unadulterated PR disaster for Musk and could easily have been avoided by even the most cursory of board meetings with staff who felt confident enough to speak the truth about obvious stupidity.
And with that, “vast records of recent human history” could be erased.
Elon Musk is not having a very good end to 2022.