Maricopa County among elections offices impacted by Musk’s Twitter checkmark saga
May 8, 2023, 4:15 AM | Updated: 11:22 am
(AP Photo/Gregory Bull, File)
PHOENIX — Whether because of close races, issues with voting machines or allegations of corruption, Maricopa County has recently been an epicenter in elections news.
Tracking down information on Maricopa County elections on Twitter used to be easy. The account for the county department which runs elections, @maricopavotes, was the only one carrying a blue check mark, a sign of authenticity.
But ever since the social media platform overhauled its verification service last month, the check mark has disappeared. That’s made it harder to distinguish @maricopavotes from random accounts not run by the elections office.
Beyond Maricopa County, election offices in three of the country’s other four most populous counties — Cook County in Illinois, Harris County in Texas and San Diego County — remain unverified, a Twitter search shows. Maricopa County has been targeted repeatedly by election conspiracy theorists as the most populous and consequential county in one of the most closely divided political battleground states.
Some counties contacted by The Associated Press said they have minimal concerns about impersonation or plan to apply for a gray check later, but others said they already have applied and have not heard back from Twitter.
Impostor accounts on social media are among many concerns election security experts have heading into next year’s presidential election. Experts have warned that foreign adversaries or others may try to influence the election, either through online disinformation campaigns or by hacking into election infrastructure.
Election administrators across the country have struggled to figure out the best way to respond after Twitter owner Elon Musk threw the platform’s verification service into disarray, given that Twitter has been among their most effective tools for communicating with the public.
Some are taking other steps allowed by Twitter, such as buying check marks for their profiles or applying for a special label reserved for government entities, but success has been mixed. Election and security experts say the inconsistency of Twitter’s new verification system is a misinformation disaster waiting to happen.
“The lack of clear, at-a-glance verification on Twitter is a ticking time bomb for disinformation,” said Rachel Tobac, CEO of the cybersecurity company SocialProof Security. “That will confuse users – especially on important days like election days.”
The blue check marks that Twitter once doled out to notable celebrities, public figures, government entities and journalists began disappearing from the platform in April. To replace them, Musk told users that anyone could pay $8 a month for an individual blue check mark or $1,000 a month for a gold check mark as a “verified organization.”
The policy change quickly opened the door for pranksters to pose convincingly as celebrities, politicians and government entities, which could no longer be identified as authentic. While some impostor accounts were clear jokes, others created confusion.
Fake accounts posing as Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, the city’s Department of Transportation and the Illinois Department of Transportation falsely claimed the city was closing one of its main thoroughfares to private traffic. The fake accounts used the same photos, biographical text and home page links as the real ones. Their posts amassed hundreds of thousands of views before being taken down.
Twitter’s new policy invites government agencies and certain affiliated organizations to apply to be labeled as official with a gray check. But at the state and local level, qualifying agencies are limited to “main executive office accounts and main agency accounts overseeing crisis response, public safety, law enforcement, and regulatory issues,” the policy says.
The rules do not mention agencies that run elections. So while the main Philadelphia city government account quickly received its gray check mark last month, the local election commission has not heard back.
Experts and advocates tracking election discourse on social media say Twitter’s changes do not just incentivize bad actors to run disinformation campaigns — they also make it harder for well-meaning users to know what’s safe to share.
“Because Twitter is dropping the ball on verification, the burden will fall on voters to double check that the information they are consuming and sharing is legitimate,” said Jill Greene, voting and elections manager for Common Cause Pennsylvania.
That dampens an aspect of Twitter that until now had been seen as one of its strengths – allowing community members to rally together to elevate authoritative information, said Mike Caulfield, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public.
“The first rule of a good online community user interface is to ’help the helpers.’ This is the opposite of that,” Caulfield said. “It takes a community of people who want to help boost good information, and robs them of the tools to make fast, accurate decisions.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.