Verified Misinformation: ‘Blue Check’ Twitter Accounts are Flooding the Platform with False Claims
Under new owner Elon Musk, Twitter is granting legitimacy to some of the platform’s influential misinformers
Twitter’s “blue check” used to signal author authenticity. Now, it’s a way for peddlers of misinformation to appear trustworthy.
Dozens of well-known purveyors of misinformation — many of whom were only recently allowed back onto the platform — are paying $8 a month for a blue check through Twitter owner and CEO Elon Musk’s new verification system called Twitter Blue, lending them an air of legitimacy as the platform’s relaxed moderation standards allow them to spread false narratives at scale.
NewsGuard analyzed the Twitter activity between March 1 and March 7, 2023, of 25 misinformation superspreader accounts that were “verified” by Twitter Blue. Each of the 25 accounts analyzed by NewsGuard had at least 50,000 followers and was either affiliated with a website that NewsGuard has assessed as having spread false information, or found to have spread a prominent false narrative included in NewsGuard’s proprietary Misinformation Fingerprints database, which provides detailed debunks of false narratives. NewsGuard found that the 25 accounts cumulatively posted 141 tweets (original and quote tweets) containing false, misleading, and unsubstantiated claims. While the majority published in English, some also tweeted in French.
These tweets were viewed nearly 27 million times and received more than 760,000 likes and retweets during this period, the NewsGuard analysis determined. The 25 accounts also cumulatively retweeted 35 posts containing misinformation, bringing the total number of tweets and retweets identified by NewsGuard for advancing false, misleading, or unsubstantiated information to 176.
Out of those 25 accounts, 10 were reinstated under Musk after being suspended under Twitter’s previous ownership.
The most common focus of the falsehoods was COVID-19. In 66 tweets and retweets, 15 accounts baselessly claimed that the vaccines were dangerous or have caused mass death, AIDS, strokes, stillbirths, or other injuries. For example, far-right commentator Stew Peters (@RealStewPeters) falsely claimed in a March 2 tweet that men who had received mRNA COVID-19 vaccines “are essentially infertile and their penises are rotting off.” (There is no evidence that COVID-19 vaccines are causing any of the above injuries, and they have been proven to be safe and effective at preventing severe disease and death.)
Other common topics were U.S. politics and the Russia-Ukraine war. A March 2 tweet by conservative commentator Rogan O’Handley (@DC_Draino) — who NewsGuard analyzed, in part, because of his role in advancing a false claim about Hunter Biden and Ukraine based on what seems to be a document fabricated to appear like a Ukrainian government document — claimed that the 2020 U.S. presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump.
The tweet referred to conservative commentator Dinesh D’Souza’s 2022 documentary “2000 Mules” and said: “2000 Mules proved *millions* of illegal ballots were stuffed into drop boxes and yet not a single mule has been arrested. Ask yourself why.” Multiple experts have said that “2000 Mules” uses a misleading interpretation of data to make its claims, and top election officials in all 50 states have affirmed the integrity of the 2020 election.
Garland Nixon (@GarlandNixon) — a Washington-based journalist at Russian state-owned broadcaster Radio Sputnik who NewsGuard previously identified as having spread false claims about the Russia-Ukraine War and U.S. politics — retweeted a March 2 post that claimed that Ukraine was overridden by Nazis, a narrative frequently advanced by pro-Russia media outlets. The post said: “Ukraine is a fake nation. It’s never been anything more than a petulant Nazi infested cesspool region.” While far-right elements do exist in Ukraine, there is no evidence that the country’s culture and politics are dominated by Nazi ideology.
The Basics of Twitter Blue
Musk’s Twitter Blue program allows users worldwide to display a blue check mark on their profile for a fee of $8 a month for individuals and, as of March 30, $1,000 a month for organizations. (The latter allows organizations to more easily manage affiliated accounts, such as subsidiaries and spokespeople.) Prior to Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, users were verified based on “authenticity, notability and activity” — in what is now referred to as “Legacy” verification by the platform. However, as of April 1, Twitter has said it will begin phasing out Legacy checks, meaning that Twitter Blue subscribers could soon be the only accounts validated with a blue check. (As of April 2, Twitter had yet to remove checkmarks from most Legacy-verified accounts, according to NBC News.)
In addition to a check mark, Twitter Blue subscribers’ tweets are also prioritized by Twitter, meaning that they appear higher in users’ feeds. While the exact details of how Twitter boosts and downranks (lowering a post’s position in users’ feeds) have been a mystery for most of Musk’s tenure as CEO, Twitter’s source code — some of which was publicly shared by Twitter on March 31 — reveals that Twitter Blue users’ posts receive significant boosts in engagement, according to some researchers on the platform.
The platform has said that it soon will begin boosting Twitter Blue users to the top of Twitter’s search function. This means that those spreading false or unsubstantiated information on the platform can get priority if they pay $8 a month.
Musk has said that at least one reason for overhauling Twitter’s verification system was to weed out “bots and trolls” — automated users and bad actors, respectively — who spam users and carry out disinformation campaigns on the platform. Users are eligible to receive a blue check mark only if they meet criteria including providing a phone number, have profiles that are active, and do not demonstrate deceptive behaviors, such as impersonation and platform manipulation and spam.
It remains to be seen how many verified journalists, political commentators, and organizations will purchase Twitter Blue to keep their blue check. Some, including The New York Times, have already said they will not pay for the subscription service. For now, NewsGuard found that dozens of prominent misinformers — who were previously unverified — have subscribed to Twitter Blue. Some of these accounts interact frequently with Musk, who in turn has amplified a misleading claim by one of the accounts.
Asked for comment on NewsGuard’s findings, the Twitter press office responded with a poop emoji. Indeed, this response is now standard for any inquiry sent to Twitter, after most of the company’s communications team was reportedly laid off after Musk acquired Twitter last fall.
Vaccines, Coups, and the QAnon Shaman: ‘Blue-Checked’ Misinformers’ Popular and Recurring Claims
To assess whether some users are exploiting the new verification system to spread misinformation, NewsGuard analyzed the tweets and retweets of 25 popular Twitter Blue accounts — those with follower counts of 54,100 to 1.5 million — that spread at least one false, misleading, or unsubstantiated claim between March 1 and March 7, 2023. Of the 25 accounts analyzed by NewsGuard, 10 had been suspended under Twitter’s previous leadership and then reinstated under Musk (At least five of the 10 accounts were suspended under Twitter’s previous leadership for posting misinformation while there was no publicized reason for the suspensions of the other five suspended and then reinstated accounts.)
The accounts’ false claims vary widely. For example, NewsGuard analyzed the tweets of Dr. Robert Malone (@DrRobertMalone), who has repeatedly spread misinformation about COVID-19 and vaccines — topics that, as noted above, were the most popular target of misinformers. The most-followed account reviewed by NewsGuard was @catturd2, an anonymous user described by Rolling Stone as “the Sh-tposting King of MAGA Twitter,” who shared multiple false and misleading claims about the 2020 presidential election and the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.
The 25 accounts analyzed by NewsGuard included the account of the far-left news outlet The Grayzone (@TheGrayzoneNews), which has published false information about the Russia-Ukraine war and Syrian chemical attacks. A March 5 tweet, which was viewed 57,800 times as of March 31, linked to a TheGrayzone.com article that described “the US-orchestrated Maidan ‘revolution,’” a reference to the 2014 protests in Ukraine that led to the ouster of Ukraine’s then-president Viktor Yanukovych. (There is no evidence that the U.S. orchestrated the revolution, which began in November 2013 as thousands of Ukrainians protested Yanukovych’s decision to suspend preparations for the signing of an association and free-trade agreement with the European Union, scheduled for the following week. The protests grew in size, and in February 2014, demonstrators took control of several buildings in Kyiv as Yanukovych fled. The Ukrainian parliament eventually voted 328-0 to remove Yanukovych.)
The accounts’ influence reach beyond the United States, with France-based users amplifying some of the same false narratives. For example, NewsGuard found that French accounts Les DéQodeurs (@les_deqodeurs) and Silvano Trotta (@silvano_trotta) both promoted unsubstantiated claims about the Jan. 6 attack during the timeframe of the analysis. (Twitter Blue was not available in France or several other European countries until early February 2023, and according to FranceInfo, Les DéQodeurs secured its blue check mark through a Canada-based staffer.)
The most-liked tweet promoting false, misleading or unsubstantiated claims posted by the 25 accounts was a March 7 post about Jan. 6 by Rogan O’Handley (@DC_Draino). The tweet, which gained more than 51,000 likes, alleged without evidence that “Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi rejected *multiple* requests for additional cops and Nat’l Guard troops.” (There is no evidence that McConnell or Pelosi, who were respectively the Senate Majority Leader and House Speaker at the time of the Capitol attack, rejected requests to send in police backup or the National Guard. Former U.S. Capitol Police Chief Steven Sund testified before Congress in February 2021 that his request to deploy the National Guard ahead of the election-certification process was declined by then-House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving and then-Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Michael Stenger. According to news reports citing Irving and people familiar with the matter, Irving and Stenger did not bring up the request to Pelosi or McConnell before Jan. 6.)
Meanwhile, the most-viewed tweet from the Twitter Blue accounts analyzed by NewsGuard was a March 1 post by anonymous user @KanekoaTheGreat — whom Business Insider and the left-leaning Media Matters reported is linked to QAnon Telegram group We the Media. The tweet, viewed 3.2 million times, included a video of Pink Floyd musician Roger Waters falsely asserting that the U.S. “engineer[ed]” the 2014 Maidan revolution. (As noted above, there is no evidence that the U.S. orchestrated the revolution.)
Five of the 25 accounts, in 10 tweets and retweets, also falsely claimed that Jan. 6 protester Jacob Chansley — often referred to as the “QAnon Shaman” — was escorted through the Capitol by police on a “tour” during the attack, citing several seconds of a video showing security officers alongside Chansley but ignoring evidence making clear this was not a tour. Chansley stated in a September 2021 plea agreement that he disobeyed multiple orders from outnumbered police officers to leave the Capitol as he ventured through the building. He pleaded guilty to one felony account of obstructing an official proceeding and served about 27 months of his 41-month prison sentence.
As noted above, all 176 of the posts (tweets and retweets) containing false, misleading, and unsubstantiated claims — whether about COVID-19, U.S. politics, or politics abroad — came from the week of March 1 to March 7, and were shared by only 25 accounts. There were 525,000 Twitter Blue subscribers as of March 30, so the total number of false claims advanced by blue-checked misinformers may be significantly greater than NewsGuard has documented here by analyzing a sampling of such accounts.
COVID-19 Misinformation Spreads Without Safeguards
Under its former COVID-19 misinformation policy, Twitter occasionally removed tweets with misleading information about COVID-19 and penalized users who posted misleading medical information. Twitter said that it stopped enforcing the policy on Nov. 23, 2022, a month after Musk took over the platform.
Under Musk, Twitter provides fewer guardrails against the spread of inaccurate claims. NewsGuard’s review found that COVID-19 misinformation thrived on Twitter: In addition to claiming that COVID-19 vaccines cause widespread harm, these blue check-verified accounts advanced the false, misleading or unsubstantiated claims that the COVID-19 virus is human-made or was intentionally engineered as a bioweapon (16 tweets), that ivermectin is a proven COVID-19 treatment (7 tweets), and that mRNA COVID-19 vaccines are gene therapies that change people’s DNA (4 tweets).
The owner of one of the 25 Twitter Blue accounts analyzed by NewsGuard, Simone Gold (@drsimonegold), who NewsGuard has found to have a history of spreading false claims about COVID-19, including that hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin are proven COVID-19 treatments, celebrated Twitter’s decision to stop enforcing its COVID-19 misinformation policy. “This policy was used to silence people across the world who questioned the media narrative surrounding the virus and treatment options,” she tweeted on Nov. 29, 2022. “A win for free speech and medical freedom!”
A Hands-On CEO: Musk’s Sway Among Misinformation Peddlers
As Twitter’s owner and with a following of over 133 million as of March 2023, Musk has considerable influence on the platform, including as a user.
Musk repeatedly interacted with two of the Twitter Blue misinformation superspreaders tracked by NewsGuard. Most of his interactions with these users were innocuous, as he addressed posts that mentioned him or comments they had about Twitter. However, Musk also amplified an unsubstantiated claim that COVID-19 was human-made in a response to a post by @KanekoaTheGreat.
In a Feb. 26 tweet, @KanekoaTheGreat wrote: “Dr. Anthony Fauci funded gain-of-function research at the Wuhan lab, lied to Congress about it, and now both the FBI & the Department of Energy have concluded that the coronavirus originated at the Wuhan lab. Does that mean Dr. Anthony Fauci funded the development of COVID-19?”
Musk replied, saying, “He did it via a pass-through organization (EcoHealth)” — a reference to U.S.-based nongovernmental organization EcoHealth Alliance that received U.S. funding for bat research at the Wuhan Institute of Virology. (There is no evidence that Fauci funded “the development of COVID-19” via EcoHealth. While some U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded the virus may have leaked from the Wuhan laboratory, none has concluded the virus was engineered or “developed” by anyone. Additionally, the EcoHealth research involved coronaviruses too genetically distant to the COVID-19 virus to have started the pandemic, according to NIH and outside scientists.)
These misinformation purveyors have also referenced Musk when spreading false claims. Self-described investigative reporter Jon Rappoport (@jonrappoport), who owns NoMoreFakeNews.com, a site NewsGuard has found to repeatedly publish false information about COVID-19 and U.S. politics, cited Musk’s since-deleted Oct. 30, 2022, tweet about the October 2022 attack against Paul Pelosi, the husband of then-U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Musk’s tweet had linked to an article that baselessly suggested Pelosi’s attacker was actually a gay prostitute with whom he had a romantic relationship.
“Musk tweet on Pelosi attack launches a whole new front in the Reality War,” Rappoport tweeted on Nov. 2, 2022. “Richest man in the world doubts the official narrative, and doubts it in mind-blowing fashion. Panic in the corridors of power?”
Chaos in the Community: Musk Champions Guardrails, but Misinformation is Still Widespread
Twitter Blue’s rollout has included impersonated accounts. In one highly publicized incident, someone posing as pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co. purchased a blue check mark and wrote, “We are excited to announce insulin is free now.” Eli Lilly’s stock plunged 4.37 percent the next day, Forbes reported, temporarily erasing more than $15 billion from the company’s market cap.
A similar incident occurred when Twitter account @LockheedMartini, impersonating the official account of defense and aerospace company Lockheed Martin, tweeted: “We will begin halting all weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United States until further investigation into their record of human rights abuses.” The account was armed with a blue check mark, despite being created by an imposter.
Pro-Russian accounts have also used Twitter Blue to push their agendas. Despite Twitter Blue’s provisions against inauthentic users getting the blue check, The Associated Press reported in March 2023 that anonymous pro-Russian accounts used Twitter to spread misleading claims about the February 2023 train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, and used Twitter’s “new verification system to expand their reach while creating the illusion of credibility.”
Under Musk, Twitter has some safeguards against misinformation, including “Community Notes,” which are crowdsourced fact checks that appear as “notes” alongside tweets. For example, a March 7 tweet by Stew Peters (@realstewpeters) — which featured an image of a public hanging that was wrongly described as a “photograph of Hangings at Nuremberg, Germany” of “members of the Media who lied and misled the German public … along with Medical Doctors and Nurses…” — included a Community Note, labeled as “Readers added context they thought people might want to know.”
“The picture is not of the Nuremberg hangings and there were no doctors or nurses hanged at Nuremberg,” the note read. The note cited a fact check from Agence France-Presse and said, “The only member of the media [who was convicted and hanged during the Nuremberg trials] was Julius Streicher, founder and publisher of pro-Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer.”
Musk has called Community Notes a “game changer for combating wrong information,” and has himself occasionally turned to Community Notes when he engages with misleading tweets. For example, he replied to a March 13 tweet by @KanekoaTheGreat about Fauci allegedly developing bioweapons for the Pentagon and wrote, “Accurate @CommunityNotes?” (A Community Note was not added to the tweet as of April 4.) Twitter has also said that it occasionally will add context to tweets.
However, of the 176 misinformation-containing tweets posted or shared by the 25 Twitter Blue accounts in NewsGuard’s analysis, none was labeled by the platform with added context, and only four had Community Notes as of March 27. (NewsGuard also found that as of April 4, two of the four identified Community Notes had disappeared. Users with Community Notes attached to their tweets can appeal for their removal, though NewsGuard was unable to confirm why these two notes were removed.)
Musk has touted these changes as fostering a place where high quality information thrives. “New Twitter is the source of truth,” he tweeted on March 6, 2023. Still, NewsGuard’s findings show that Twitter, under Musk, has become a space that enables some of the most influential misinformers to run amok.
Methodology: In March 2023, five NewsGuard analysts identified Twitter accounts that met these criteria: They had at least 50,000 followers, were subscribed to Twitter Blue, and were either affiliated with websites found by NewsGuard to have repeatedly spread false, misleading, or unsubstantiated information, or found to have advanced one of NewsGuard’s Misinformation Fingerprints, which document false narratives.
From this cohort, NewsGuard randomly selected 25 accounts (23 U.S.-based accounts and two France-based) to represent a range of political ideologies.
The analysts counted the false, misleading, and unsubstantiated claims posted, retweeted, and quote-tweeted by these 25 accounts from March 1 to March 7, 2023.