Chadwick Boseman, Kobe Bryant and Anthony Bourdain are the latest celebrities to be verified under Twitter Blue, the social media platform’s paid-subscription service that allows anyone to get a blue check mark by their display name if they pay $8 a month and confirm their phone number.
Except the actor, athlete and celebrity chef died years ago, before Twitter Blue even existed.
Their accounts — and those of at least a dozen other dead celebrities — now feature a blue check, which, if hovered over, displays the message: “This account is verified because they are subscribed to Twitter Blue and verified their phone number.”
It was just the latest in a series of changes under new owner Elon Musk, who purchased the company for $44 billion in October. Since then, Musk has terminated more than 75 percent of the company’s employees, changed the way users’ timelines worked and, on Thursday, removed check marks from thousands of legacy verified accounts belonging to celebrities, journalists, politicians and others.
But it quickly became clear over the weekend that some high-profile individuals still had the check mark, which is now available as part of an $8 a month subscription, even if they said they weren’t paying for it.
Regarding the accounts of those who had died, it wasn’t immediately clear whether someone paid for Twitter Blue or whether Twitter had decided to grant them free. Many of the profiles haven’t been active since these people died, while others are being actively managed.
Twitter did not respond to a request for comment early Sunday.
The controversy over the check marks follows a rough week for Musk, who is also CEO of SpaceX and Tesla. A SpaceX Starship and its rocket blew up Thursday minutes after launch, and disappointing Tesla earnings on Wednesday sent the stock price plummeting.
People in Musk’s orbit have noted that the world’s second richest man has been distracted by Twitter and making changes there, The Washington Post has previously reported. In an interview earlier this month, Musk said he’s sleeping on a couch at Twitter headquarters and has put his dog Floki in charge.
Musk has said the removal of most legacy check marks is a way to resolve what he described as a “lords & peasants system.” The check marks were previously given free to certain public figures and were meant to signal that Twitter had verified the authenticity of the account.
Now, the blue check marks are available to anyone for purchase. Twitter’s Help Center specifies that accounts that get the check mark as part of their Twitter Blue subscription “will not undergo review to confirm that they meet the active, notable and authentic criteria that was used in the previous process.” Experts have warned that this could increase the risk of impersonation and accelerate the spread of misinformation on Twitter.
When Musk initially rolled the program out in November, there was a surge of accounts impersonating famous people and brands, prompting him to quickly roll it back for improvements.
Several high-profile people who said they had automatically gotten Twitter Blue complained that the check mark, previously a status symbol, now felt like a reprimand.
Model and television personality Chrissy Teigen tweeted, “wait I’m crying they’re giving them for punishment now !!?!!” When Jon Favreau, co-host of the left-wing political podcast “Pod Save America,” bemoaned getting one, Teigen advised him that changing his account handle would make the check mark disappear.
Among the deceased public figures listed Sunday as Twitter Blue subscribers were two performers — Michael Jackson, who died in 2009, and Malcolm James McCormick, known professionally as Mac Miller, who died in 2018 — as well as John McCain, the Republican senator from Arizona who also died in 2018. The accounts of actress Kirstie Alley, TV host Barbara Walters and Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington, all of whom have died, also had blue check marks.
Twitter users reacted with shock and anger, with some arguing that the platform bestowing the symbol on the accounts — if that is what happened — looked desperate and could be perceived as a tacit endorsement of the company from someone maintaining the account of a deceased celebrity.
Some questioned whether giving check marks to deceased public figures or celebrities who have not paid for the emoji could violate federal and state laws prohibiting defamation, false insinuations that someone has endorsed a product or service, or use of a person’s likeness for publicity without their consent.
Depending on the specific law, a legal claim could involve questions about whether a blue check mark implies endorsement of Twitter, whether those check marks affect other people’s decisions to pay for Twitter Blue, and whether consumers have been misled, said Alexandra Roberts, a law and media professor at Northeastern University. The outcomes of any lawsuits, she said, would be difficult to predict because “there’s not a lot of precedent” for such cases.
Many Twitter users pointed to the blue check mark on the account of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributing columnist who was assassinated in 2018, in what U.S. intelligence agencies say was a hit ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
“This is obscene,” said Mohamad Bazzi, an associate professor of journalism at New York University.
“Jamal Khashoggi deserves better,” said Manisha Ganguly, an investigations correspondent for the Guardian.