SAN FRANCISCO — Elon Musk sought to reassure big companies that advertise on Twitter on Wednesday that his chaotic takeover of the social media platform won’t harm their brands, acknowledging that some “dumb things” might happen on his way to creating what he says will be a better, safer user experience.
The latest erratic move on the minds of major advertisers who the company depends on for revenue was Musk's decision to abolish a new “official” label on high-profile Twitter accounts just hours after introducing it.
Twitter began adding the gray labels to some prominent accounts Wednesday, including brands like Coca-Cola, Nike and Apple, to indicate that they are authentic. A few hours later, the labels started disappearing.
“Apart from being an aesthetic nightmare when looking at the Twitter feed, it was another way of creating a two-class system,” the billionaire Tesla CEO told advertisers in an hour-long conversation broadcast live on Twitter. “It wasn’t addressing the core problem.”
Musk's comments were his most expansive about Twitter's future since he closed a $44 billion deal to buy the company late last month, dismissed its top executives almost immediately and, on Friday, fired roughly half of its workforce. Major brands including General Motors, United Airlines, General Mills and others have temporarily halted buying ads on the platform as they watch whether Musk's plans to loosen its guardrails against hate speech will lead to a rise in online toxicity.
Musk had earlier threatened by tweet a “thermonuclear name & shame” on advertisers that quit Twitter. But he took a more measured approach Wednesday, asking them to “give it a minute and kind of see how things are evolving.”
"The best way to understand what’s going on with Twitter is use Twitter,” he told the group, which was represented mostly by the head of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, a trade association.
But for those who did use Twitter, the confusion hasn't abated. The rollout hours earlier of the “official” labels appeared arbitrary, with some politicians, news outlets and well-known personalities getting the label and others not. Musk seemed to acknowledge the confusion and embraced his role as “Twitter Complaint Hotline Operator” as he invited users to send him complaints.
Media sites like The Associated Press, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal received an official designation, as did most major corporate brands. And then they were gone.
Before they disappeared, the labels were causing confusion. For instance, users in London could see an “official” label attached to a BBC News account, but the label didn't show up for users in the U.S.
YouTube personality and author John Green jokingly noted that he got the label, but his younger brother and “vlogging” partner Hank Green didn't make the cut. But then John Green's label was gone, too. Another popular YouTuber, Marques Brownlee, who posts videos on technology, tweeted he got the label, then tweeted again that it disappeared, which attracted the attention of Musk himself.
“I just killed it,” Musk responded, though at first it wasn't clear if he was referring specifically to Brownlee's label or the entire project.
The site's current system of using what are known as “blue checks” confirming an account's authenticity will soon go away for those who don't pay a monthly fee. The checkmarks will be available at a yet-to-be-announced date for anyone willing to pay a $7.99-a-month subscription, which will also include some bonus features, such as fewer ads and the ability to have tweets given greater visibility than those coming from non-subscribers.
The platform's current verification system has been in place since 2009 and was created to ensure high-profile and public-facing accounts are who they say they are.
Experts have expressed concern that making the checkmark available to anyone for a fee could lead to impersonations and the spreading of misinformation and scams.
The gray label — a color that tends to blend into the background whether you use light or dark mode to scroll Twitter — was an apparent compromise. But it was expected to lead to more confusion, as Twitter users accustomed to the blue check as a mark of authenticity would now have to look for the less obvious “official” designation.
Esther Crawford, a Twitter employee who has been working on the verification overhaul, had said Tuesday on Twitter that the “official” label would be added to “select accounts" when the new system launches.
“Not all previously verified accounts will get the ‘Official’ label and the label is not available for purchase," said Crawford, who recently was the subject of a viral photo showing her sleeping on the floor of a Twitter office while working to meet Musk’s deadlines.
Crawford said those receiving the label would include government accounts, commercial companies, business partners, major media outlets, publishers and some public figures. But after the labels started disappearing Wednesday, she again took to Twitter to say “there are no sacred cows in product at Twitter anymore.”
“Elon is willing to try lots of things -- many will fail, some will succeed,” she said. “The goal is to find the right mix of successful changes to ensure the long-term health and growth of the business.”
There are about 423,000 verified accounts under the outgoing system. Many of those belong to celebrities, businesses and politicians, as well as media outlets.
But a large chunk of verified accounts belong to individual journalists, some with tiny followings at local newspapers and news sites around the world. The idea was to verify reporters so their identities couldn't be used to push false information on Twitter.