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Twitter recalls subscription-based service Twitter Blue just days after its launch

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Twitter Blue, we hardly knew you. Within a week of Twitter rolling out its Blue subscription service that allowed users to pay 7.99 for a verified checkmark, the company announced it's putting the program on pause. It was the first big product launch under Elon Musk at Twitter, and it's been a bust. Fraudsters bought subscriptions so they could impersonate people or brands and cause mischief. NPR's Bobby Allyn - the real one - joins us now.

Bobby, thanks so much for being with us.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: This announcement yesterday came after somebody took LeBron James' name, somebody took former President Bush's names onto their accounts and got them verified.

ALLYN: Yeah. That's right. So as you mentioned - and as a result, Elon Musk is tapping the brakes on Twitter Blue because complete and utter mayhem was unleashed, basically. It turns out if anyone with eight bucks can go and get a blue check on their Twitter profile, well, the internet will be the internet. So, yeah, we saw all kinds of phony accounts. We saw Eli Lilly and Coca-Cola impersonated. We saw - fake accounts of President - former President Trump, Rudy Giuliani, LeBron James sent messages out. Most troubling to people like disinformation researchers, though, were fake accounts that popped up with blue checks purporting to be news organizations.

So the situation has clearly gotten very out of hand, Scott. But, you know, Musk's thinking behind this is really twofold here. And it's that he wants Twitter to find ways to make money other than advertising, which is how Twitter makes most of its money. And he thinks blue checks on Twitter is - it's kind of an elitist system, at least according to Musk, right? He thinks, you know, that the power should be given back to the people that believe. That's how he puts it, at least.

SIMON: Well, there used to be a system to certify that the people who said they were those people were those people, right?

ALLYN: (Laughter) Exactly. So in the before times, I guess we can say now, government agencies, politicians, celebrities, journalists like you and I, Scott, would receive blue checks on Twitter if the company verified and, you know...

SIMON: Yeah.

ALLYN: ...Did some vetting and did due diligence and figured out, yes, this is the Scott Simon who we think it is. So we'll give this person a blue check, right? But Musk said that amounted to a, quote, "lords & peasants system." So he ripped up the rulebook and decided to start over. As we're discussing here, Musk and his team are now reevaluating. But what remains his strong belief is that, you know, cracking down on bots and scammers on Twitter, you know, really should be the company's No. 1 priority. And he originally thought selling blue checks might be a good solution. Ironically, it has had the opposite effect, and it's made the problem he diagnosed much worse.

SIMON: And that's because advertisers and other supporters got upset by how the landscape would change if you had a lot of people doing impersonations?

ALLYN: Yeah, in part. I mean, right now you just really can't be confident about anything that you see on Twitter. And as you mentioned, advertisers have gotten - you know, have been very aghast, honestly, looking at the situation and saying, you know, we believe in something called brand safety, and we don't want to place ads next to a bunch of tweets that are spreading disinformation or are impersonating former presidents. That just doesn't sound something that's worth placing an ad next to.

SIMON: It would seem as if the richest man in the world is off to a rocky start as head of this platform. What's the outlook?

ALLYN: In short, it's pretty bleak, Scott. I mean, look, you have the internet's town square, which is being run right now by an erratic billionaire who likes making decisions rationally. Half of the staff has been laid off. We've already seen a slew of top executive who work on things like trust and safety resign in protest. As you mentioned, big advertisers are bolting.

And under the hood, Twitter has never been a very good business, right? It's long struggled to make a profit. And now under Musk, it's got lots of new debt weighing it down. If it's any indication of what could be in store for the company, Musk told employees recently that he's not ruling bankruptcy out. So that's what Twitter is looking at right now.

SIMON: NPR's Bobby Allyn. Thanks so much.

ALLYN: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.