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Elon Musk’s reversal on blue checkmarks shows his desperation to lure high-profile users back to X

Analysis by Oliver Darcy, CNN

New York (CNN) — Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. Sign up for the daily digest chronicling the evolving media landscape here.

Elon Musk has given up, restoring the “lords and peasants” blue checkmark system he once admonished and assailed as elitism.

After insisting that journalists, celebrities and other notable users pay him $8 a month for Twitter’s once-coveted blue checkmark, the erratic billionaire has thrown in the towel, widely restoring blue badges to prominent accounts on the imperiled social media platform.

A number of people — including yours truly — woke up on Thursday to learn that X had declared them “an influential member of the community” and, thus, would be giving them “a complimentary subscription to X Premium.” The message the company sent to those users noted that X “reserves the right to cancel the complimentary subscription in its sole discretion.” (Translation: If you’re mean to Musk, you are likely putting yourself in jeopardy of losing it.)

The move is a major reversal by Musk, who made user payments for the blue checkmark a central tenet of his plan to build a subscription business on X and reduce the platform’s heavy dependency on advertiser dollars. “Trash me all day, but it’ll cost $8,” Musk insisted, endlessly repeating a version of that message to the vocal and constant complaints of users.

“To all complainers, please continue complaining, but it will cost $8,” Musk declared.

Musk — who often uses his perch as the most-followed user on X to share absurd and dangerous right-wing conspiracy theories — also took glee in stripping journalists of their status. The thin-skinned Musk has repeatedly smeared the press and, when he took over the platform, made it a point to strip journalists of any special cachet they carried, framing it as a move aimed at empowering the masses.

“Twitter’s current lords & peasants system for who has or doesn’t have a blue checkmark is bullshit,” Musk wrote in November 2022. “Power to the people!”

Naturally, users pushed back against his plans, noting that verification of journalists offered the public a helpful way of quickly identifying credible sources of news. In reality, the legacy verification system benefited the average user far more than it benefited those who were given the badges. But Musk, blind or disinterested in that reality, vigorously pushed back.

“You represent the problem: journalists who think they are the only source of legitimate information,” Musk wrote to one protesting user. “That’s the big lie.”

“Empowering the public relative to journalists sure is a great way to earn negative press 🤣🤣,” Musk said in another post.

But most journalists and other notable users who once sported the checkmark declined to fork over the cash. Instead, the people willing to shell out money for the status symbol consisted of a cocktail of Musk super-fans, right-wing trolls and others who would not have been able to attain a checkmark under the legacy system which required them to be a notable public figure. (Ironically, a fair continent of this group spent years mocking journalists for supposedly being obsessed with the checkmark, only to pay $8 for it while the journalists declined).

Even worse, trolls impersonating the identities of others were granted blue checkmarks, stripping the symbol of its core value: identity verification.

As a direct result, the once-coveted status symbol lost all its value, instead becoming a toxic sign of obedience and fealty to Musk, which many users rejected. This week, when Musk suddenly appended checkmarks to the accounts of “influential members of the community,” plenty of users loudly noted that they had not paid for it.

“What happened? I didn’t pay for this. I would NEVER pay for this,” actress Yvette Nicole Brown posted on X.

“Stating for the record I did NOT pay to have my check mark restored,” added the conservative commentator Amanda Carpenter.

A representative for X did not respond to a request for comment on Musk’s move to restore the blue checkmarks. But it’s obvious.

Since Musk’s disastrous takeover of the social media company, the platform has been on a downward spiral. Notably, X’s daily usage has plummeted over the last year, with the user base down a staggering 23%, according to data Sensor Tower provided NBC News’ David Ingram. Daily active users are down an additional 18%, the analytics firm added.

That’s an alarming trend for the platform, which likes to market itself as the place where live conversation occurs. Meanwhile, Meta’s X competitor, Threads, continues to show growth, with Mark Zuckerberg telling investors in February that the platform has grown to more than 130 million monthly active users. Zuckerberg has said that his goal is to get Threads to 1 billion users. And other platforms like Mastodon and BlueSky have also become refuges for Twitter exiles.

It all spells trouble for Musk, whose platform continues to descend into an uninhabitable right-wing fever swamp (quite frankly, it already can be fairly defined as such). Don’t just take my word for it, either. The evidence is plain as day in Musk’s own public actions. The billionaire has grown so desperate to lure back one-time power users, he is reversing course on what was his rallying cry against the elites.

Gone are the days when Musk poked the journalists and celebrity class about paying him $8 a month. Now, Musk is so desperate to see their return, he’s willing to crown them with the blue badge and restore their accounts to “lord” status. That says it all.

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