By Glenn CHAPMAN with Alex PIGMAN in Washington
Elon Musk relaunched a subscription service for Twitter on Monday after a first attempt saw an embarrassing spate of fake accounts that scared advertisers and cast doubt on the site’s future.
The first try last month came just 10 days after Musk’s $44 billion takeover of the influential platform and a mass round of layoffs that saw company staff levels halved, including teams of workers moderating content.
The relaunch of Twitter Blue comes as the Tesla and SpaceX owner has stepped up his tweets endorsing right-wing causes, including opposition to the use of gender neutral pronouns and the US government’s response to Covid-19.
The subscription service costs $8 per month for users accessing Twitter on the web and $11 if signing up on an Apple device. The extra price could be explained by Musk’s anger that Apple charges up to 30 percent service fee on its app store.
The initial rollout of Twitter Blue caused an uproar when many fake accounts popped up pretending to be celebrities or companies and Musk’s team was forced to pull the plug on the scheme.
This time, the company beefed up its verification procedure with a review required by Twitter before receiving the coveted blue check mark.
Checkmarks are now gold for businesses and, later in the week, will become gray for government organizations, the company said.
A blue checkmark on an account, which indicates it has been verified by Twitter, was previously free but reserved for organizations and public figures in an attempt to avoid impersonation and misinformation.
According to the site, new subscriptions to Twitter Blue were currently available only in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK, “with plans to expand.”
– ‘One more lockdown’ –
Since his takeover, content moderation has proved to be a major headache for Musk, who has described himself as a free-speech absolutist and vowed to end most forms of censorship on the site.
But the billionaire’s commitment to free speech has scared off major advertisers, caught the attention of regulators and briefly challenged the company’s access to the Apple app store.
Musk believes that the previous ownership of Twitter held a strong left-wing and pro-LGBTQ bias and unfairly banned accounts, including that of former president Donald Trump.
On Sunday he also lashed out against the outgoing key advisor for the US response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Anthony Fauci, a frequent target of vitriol on right-wing media.
“My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci,” Musk said, tauntingly playing on the growing practice for people to indicate their preferred gender pronouns.
Musk also posted a meme showing Fauci telling US President Joe Biden, “Just one more lockdown, my king…”
Early in the pandemic, Musk tweeted that concern over the virus was “dumb” and since taking over Twitter has removed its policy targeting Covid misinformation.
The White House blasted Musk for the tweets against Fauci calling them “disgusting” and “divorced from reality”.
“These are incredibly dangerous, these personal attacks that we are seeing,” said White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre.
CNN reported that Twitter’s former head of trust and safety had fled his home after baseless attacks on Twitter, endorsed by Musk.
Yoel Roth, who left the company in November, has been the subject of threats following the release of the Twitter Files, a trove of internal documents that Musk alleges demonstrates collusion within the company with the Democratic Party.
The attacks took a serious turn Sunday when Musk endorsed a tweet that accused Roth of being an apologist for pedophilia — a common trope used by conspiracy theorists to target opponents.
The South African-born billionaire’s embrace of right-wing talking points seemed to attract increasing scorn in politically liberal San Francisco, where Twitter is headquartered.
Musk was loudly booed by a crowd in the city late Sunday after he was invited on stage by comedian Dave Chappelle.
“It’s almost as if I’ve offended San Francisco’s unhinged leftists… but nahhh,” Musk tweeted after the event.
Carolina Milanesi, a tech analyst for Creative Strategies, warned that Musk’s political turn on Twitter could be problematic for the company going forward.
With engagement down significantly, the return on investment for promoting tweets has “crashed,” she said.