Dozens of extremists on Twitter now sport the “blue check” once reserved for verified accounts, after signing up for the paid Twitter Blue service under policies instituted by the platform’s new proprietor, Elon Musk.
Previously, verification was carried out at no cost to users in order to authenticate accounts belonging to public figures, news outlets, government agencies and reporters.
Between Nov. 9-11, however, users were able to sign up for a paid tier of the service – Twitter Blue – which for $7.99 per month would add to their profile a “blue checkmark, just like the celebrities, companies and politicians you already follow.” Twitter prevented new signups to Twitter Blue late on Nov. 11 after a rash of impersonator accounts, including one targeting Musk’s other company, Tesla, created an impression of chaos on the site.
The vast majority of Twitter users passed up this offer, and reports on Twitter’s internal discussions put the number of subscribers at just 140,000 of Twitter’s 450 million active users signing up. But dozens of extremists acquired blue checks during the two-day window of availability.
Hatewatch’s investigation of extremists’ use of Twitter Blue, based in part on a third-party public list of paid blue-check accounts, found that white nationalists, anti-LGBTQ extremists and other far-right individuals and groups now sport what was once a symbol of credibility on the platform.
The rush for blue checks is just one indication of Musk’s apparent lack of interest in policing hate speech on the social media platform he acquired for some $44 billion last month.
Hatewatch identified extremist blue-check accounts by consulting the list of paid accounts made by software developer Travis Brown and checking these against live Twitter accounts.
Brown has developed several tools for monitoring extremists online. He told Hatewatch in a telephone conversation that the latest version of the list shows accounts that have paid for blue checks ranked “by their centrality in far-right Twitter networks,” so that accounts with more connections with other far-right accounts receive a higher ranking in the list.
Using this method, Hatewatch found that many white nationalists, white power activists and others committed to racist political ideologies have paid for blue checks.
White nationalists with blue checks include fired Trump staffer and junk-news purveyor Darren Beattie; podcaster Henrik Palmgren; and Dave Reilly, who marched with the “Unite the Right” protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, and has used his fake-news site, the Idaho Tribune, to mobilize the far right against such events as the Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Pride Festival in June.
Another white nationalist account sporting a blue check was the one associated with Antelope Hill Publishing. In June, Hatewatch identified Vincent Cucchiara, Sarah Cucchiara and Dmitri Loutsik as three of the principals of the company, which is closely aligned with the pro-Hitler National Justice Party.
Other hard-right, “America First” outlets that promote a range of far-right positions, including many shared with white nationalism, also purchased blue checks. They include Minnesotan blogger and former columnist John Gilmore, whose website promotes concepts coined by far-right ideologues as “keys to the zeitgeist,” and whose Twitter timeline obsessively lights on themes associated with White nationalism.
Anti-LGBTQ propagandists also bought blue checks. They included Chaya Raichik, who started out her “Libs of TikTok” activities by mobilizing followers against LGBTQ users on the video-sharing site TikTok, and since has expanded into promoting anti-LGBTQ conspiracy theories, directing hostile attention at schoolteachers who allow classroom discussion of gender and sexuality, and highlighting hospitals that provide gender-affirming care.
Many of the individuals and organizations Raichik has targeted have subsequently been subject to threats. Raichik’s account was briefly suspended by pre-Musk Twitter moderators.
Other anti-LGBTQ activists who bought blue checks include traditional Catholic YouTuber Taylor Marshall, who once ranted that men decorating gingerbread houses were “effeminate,” and the “UnWokable Podcast,” which represents an anti-LGBTQ propaganda outlet operated by Oklahoman Mark Ousley.
Radical parents’ groups including Awake Illinois and Courage Is a Habit also took the opportunity to purchase some ersatz blue-tick legitimacy. Each is part of a wave of such parent groups that galvanize followers to attack members and allies of the LGBTQ community, mask and vaccine mandates, and inclusive curriculum, such as critical race theory. The groups organize people radicalized by their hateful rhetoric to mount disruptive protests at school board meetings, advocate for book bans at school libraries and run for school board.
In July, Awake Illinois directed hostile attention at a Chicago bakery ahead of a child-friendly drag event. The bakery was subsequently vandalized, and Joseph I. Collins, 24, of Alsip, Illinois, was arrested and charged over the incident. Collins is currently on trial for vandalism charges and a felony hate crime.
Courage Is a Habit was founded by Indiana-based magician and anti-LGBTQ activist Alvin Lui. Lui was previously associated with another radical parents’ group, Unify Carmel, which used common movement tactics in reportedly disrupting school board meetings in an attempt to induce Indiana’s Carmel Clay School District to roll back diversity and inclusion measures and COVID-related mask mandates.
His efforts in 2021 were rewarded with attention from powerful conservative groups such as Heritage Action, the Heritage Foundation’s propaganda organ.
Other far-right extremists who bought blue checks include male supremacist Tanner Guzy, who has indicated his supported for the far-right Mormon fundamentalist “Deseret nationalist” or “DezNat” movement; Alex Stein, a far-right Internet performer who specializes in video recordings of bigoted stunts; and anti-Muslim pro-Trump influencer Amy Mekelburg, who has spread hate on Twitter as Amy Mek since 2013.
Also, Richard Spencer, the onetime “alt-right” influencer, and Jason Kessler, organizer of the the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville where Heather Heyer was murdered, each bought blue checks after being prominently stripped of verification in November 2017.
Hatewatch contacted Twitter’s press office but received no response. Hatewatch also unsuccessfully attempted to contact Musk for a response.
Twitter introduced verification – and an indicative blue check on user profiles – in 2009 following several high-profile incidents in which celebrities were impersonated on the platform. The site was subsequently extended verification to journalists, news outlets, politicians and other public figures in an attempt to slow the spread of impersonation and misinformation on the platform.
Progressive activists have criticized Twitter for verifying such extremists as Kessler and Spencer, on the grounds that verification legitimizes their political advocacy. But the political right had also long made individual “blue check” users who had been verified by Twitter targets of their resentment and even harassment.
The political right associated “blue check” users with political liberals, journalists, academics and other perceived enemy groups. This was connected with a widespread belief among conservatives and the far right that mainstream social media platforms that were biased against the right.
Twitter’s own research published in late 2021 suggested that the platform had been amplifying more tweets from right-wing politicians and media outlets than those of their left-leaning counterparts.
Commentators and activists, meanwhile, have argued that Musk’s chaotically implemented changes to verification are pandering to the right’s resentment of the old verification system, and will turn the site into a “scammer’s paradise.”
A Washington Post reporter was able to set up a verified account for Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey under the new verification regime last week, which led to a testy exchange on Twitter between Markey and Musk.
Photo illustration by SPLC