Twitter strikes New York Times' verified badge on Elon Musk's orders

Twitter's headquarters in October.
Twitter's headquarters in October.Photo for The Washington Post by Amy Osborne

Twitter removed the "verified" badge from the New York Times' main account on Sunday, a move that billionaire owner Elon Musk pushed for overnight after learning that the news organization would not pay for its Twitter Blue service.

The move continues Musk's years-old grudge against U.S. journalists who have reported critically on him, and it will raise the risks of impersonation. It also contradicts an internal plan, first reported by the Times on Thursday, to keep the badges on for its 10,000 most-followed organizations, regardless of whether they paid.

Twitter had said that it would begin winding down its traditional verification program starting Saturday, removing the blue check mark icons it had for years applied to the accounts of verified companies, journalists and public figures.

In its place, Twitter is implementing a pay-for-play system that would give the badge to anyone who pays for it - money the company desperately needs to make up for its plunging advertising revenue and billions of dollars in debt. Twitter Blue will cost users about $8 a month, while businesses wanting verification will be charged $1,000 a month.

By Sunday morning, the Times - Twitter's 24th most-followed account, with more than 54 million followers - was one of only a few dozen accounts to have actually seen its badge removed, according to data collected by Travis Brown, a software developer who has been tracking the changes.

The move appears to have been personally directed or encouraged by Musk, who had responded late Saturday night to a meme outlining the Times's decision to not pay for Twitter verification by saying, "Oh ok, we'll take it off then."

The Times, The Washington Post and other news organizations said Thursday they would not pay for verification for their news organizations or journalists, although the Times said there could be some rare exceptions where the mark could "be essential for reporting purposes."

Asked about the move Sunday, a Times spokesperson reiterated that the news organization is still not "planning to pay the monthly fee for check mark status for our institutional Twitter accounts."

Musk didn't respond immediately to an email seeking comment.

It was unclear why other accounts still had their badge. The Post reported on Friday that the removal of verification badges would require extensive manual work because of the company's error-prone software, which one former employee described as "all held together with duct tape."

In a deleted tweet from early Sunday morning, Musk had said the company would give verified accounts "a few weeks grace, unless they tell they won't pay now, in which we will remove it."

Musk overnight also tweeted several attacks on the Times, saying "their propaganda isn't even interesting."

Twitter, as a company policy imposed by Musk, no longer answers journalists' questions on any subject. In December, it suspended several journalists, including this reporter, for tweeting about the company's sudden suspensions of accounts that shared public data about the flights of Musk's private jet.

Even though Musk said Friday that he wants to make Twitter "the most trusted place on the internet," the move will probably make it harder for Twitter users to distinguish between legitimate and fake accounts. Pranksters and trolls on the platform have already begun changing their names and photos to mimic celebrities, companies and politicians.

One account, using the Times' name and photo, tweeted, "Sources inside Twitter say that Elon Musk is petty," alongside a string of expletives.

While the Times' main account no longer has a check mark icon, the accounts for its other properties still do.

So, too, do the accounts of celebrities, including basketball icon LeBron James, who tweeted on Friday to his more than 52 million followers, "Welp guess my blue [check mark] will be gone soon cause if you know me I ain't paying the 5."