THE impact of Twitter’s new pay-for-verification scheme on the spread of misinformation ahead of indyref2 and future elections is currently up in the air.

Billionaire Elon Musk’s plans will mean that users of the social media site who wish to be verified with a blue tick will have to stump up $8 a month, with the added “benefits” of fewer adverts and priority in replies.

It’s apparently part of the Tesla owner’s attempts to get rid of the staggering number of bots active on the site, but it also risks opening up the possibility of more disinformation spreading.

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What Twitter's  blue tick change means

Instead of journalists, politicians, and those in the public eye verifying who they are with evidence, which can sometimes take months or years after the US midterms are over - all you will need is a credit card.

The National spoke to experts in the area who said the impact is as yet unclear - but the outlook is not good.

It comes after Musk shared a conspiracy theory regarding the attack on US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's husband, which he was later forced to delete. 

Callum Hood, head of research at the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH), said that the impact of the changes Musk is mulling creates uncertainty and could row back the small amount of progress the social media site has put in place to counter disinformation spreading.

He explained: “The whole point of verification was originally to help users tell if people are who they really say they are. That was the point, the clue is the name.

“The moment you just make it a paid for thing, it's up for grabs for anyone, and the only verification involved is your credit card details, that goes out the window.”

Hood believes the move will make the blue tick immediately “less valuable”, but added he has concerns that junior journalists or those at local news outlets who simply cannot afford to pay the subscription fee, will lose out.

The National: The impact of Musk's changes to the way the social media site works are yet unknownThe impact of Musk's changes to the way the social media site works are yet unknown (Image: PA)

Vian Bakir, a professor in journalism and political communications at Bangor University in Wales, doesn’t believe the incoming verification process will have much impact on the ordinary Twitter user and believes that Musk’s drive to get rid of bots could improve the site.

She said: “I can’t see a clear link between charging for verification and any increased risk of false information.

“If anything, if Twitter used that subscription money to improve its resources for content moderation, it might even make things better on the false information front.

“More serious, in my view, are reports that Musk is firing lots of his staff, including the head of trust and safety at the platform, Vijaya Gadde.

“It would be important to know if he is also firing his content moderators. Without an army of trained human content moderators, then there will be an increase in false information online.”

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What about the indyref2 debate?

With indyref2 looming, there are concerns that Unionist troll accounts could weaponise the new blue tick process and it could have a devastating impact on the debate.

Bakir notes that the referendum is an “emotional” question that will easily gain traction on Twitter, but notes there is a risk of an increase in bots and “troll armies” engaging in information warfare from abroad and at home who tend to target elections and referendums.

She explained: “If the verification charge actually works and starts to minimise bots and spam, then this might help with the information warfare element.

“However, information warfare is also conducted by trolls, paid humans, who set up real accounts online. So I can’t see how the verification charge will work against them.”

There are a number of notable online pro-Union trolls who already have large established followings on the site, including Agent P, with 37,800 followers and the profile tagline “If you like the SNP, you won’t like me”.

There's also Jane Lax, former Moray Tory group treasurer who was suspended by the party after she joked about Nicola Sturgeon’s miscarriage on Twitter who has 16,900 followers, and Effie Deans, now a Spectator contributor with 42,500 followers.

Another large-scale pro-Union account Silvio Tattiscone was suspended from Twitter last year after a hate campaign targeting Scots language poet Len Pennie.

Iona Fyfe, a Scots folk singer who supports independence and has 25,800 followers, said that she fears troll accounts, who target her frequently, will weaponise the blue tick with the upcoming change and that the Yes campaign should be prepared for it.

She said: “I think the spread of disinformation will get worse and worse. I wonder if it's going to become a Unionist echo chamber.”

Fyfe, who currently has a blue tick, told The National she has already seen an increase in the number of fake accounts impersonating her increase to four since Musk’s takeover of the site.

She added: “I'm so concerned and terrified that if they can just pay for a blue badge, they could impersonate me so easily or they could impersonate anyone else.

“I'm really concerned that the spread of disinformation will get worse. If Iona Strife can get a blue badge or all these horrible, mean, bullying accounts, then apart from my handle being my handle, they could use my photo and convince people they are me.”

Will people leave Twitter?

Twitter is not only a place where many users follow news stories or trending topics, but can create news if a politician or someone in the public eye makes any controversial remarks.

Hood, from CCDH, noted that right-wing alternatives to Twitter, such as Parler, Gab, and Donald Trump’s Truth Social, have never really got off the ground because they are “boring”.

He explained: “What propels the movements is a sort of parasitic relationship with more liberal accounts and ideas.

“To put it simply, the currency of Twitter is arguments, and so a social media platform without those as some right-wingers have found when they tried to set up alternative platforms, can be a bit boring and doesn't really get much engagement.”

The National: Fyfe is one of a number of Scots on Twitter who have created Mastodon accountsFyfe is one of a number of Scots on Twitter who have created Mastodon accounts (Image: NQ Staff)

There has been a noticeable uptick on the social media site since Musk’s takeover of users setting up accounts on the server-based site Mastodon, including Fyfe, Scottish politicians, and writer Irvine Welsh.

Fyfe told The National she is concerned that a mass exodus could have a detrimental impact on floating voters who are open to discussing Scotland’s future as an independent country.

She said: “I don't know if we should really worry like such a small per cent of the population actually is on Twitter.

“But at the end of the day, a lot of you know free thinkers and people who are willing to be swayed, they're willing to have the conversation, they're moving over to I guess Mastodon and other places.”

Paul Kavanagh, who writes for The National and blogs as Wee Ginger Dug, said that he has started to disengage from Twitter due to health reasons, the impact on mental health, and added that he was frequently targeted by Unionist trolls, who he had to block.

READ MORE: Top Scottish Twitter users flock to Mastodon amid Elon Musk's Twitter takeover

Kavanagh, who doesn't have a blue tick, said: “I don’t know what effect all of this will have on a future independence referendum, I think it will depend on what happens with Mastodon.

“We’ll just have to see how it pans out, but I have a horrible feeling that there’s going to be a lot more nastiness on Twitter to come.”

Hood said it was hard to tell if Musk’s takeover signals the end of Twitter or if it could survive. He said: “I don't think things are going to change overnight, but Twitter's certainly in a perilous position and people are now ready to look for alternatives.”

Twitter has been contacted for comment.