An influential Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee threatened to rein in Elon Musk’s companies on Sunday, after the senator and CEO exchanged heated words on Twitter over the platform’s verification process.
The exchange between Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Musk came after The Washington Post on Nov. 11 published an article describing how one of the newspaper’s columnists—with Markey’s blessing—was able to set up a verified Twitter account posing as the senator. Following the article’s publication, Markey sent a letter to Musk demanding answers about the company’s recently announced subscription-based verification service, saying that “allowing an imposter to impersonate a U.S. senator on Twitter is a serious matter that you need to address promptly.”
“Safeguards such as Twitter’s blue checkmark once allowed users to be smart, critical consumers of news and information in Twitter’s global town square,” Markey wrote in the Nov. 11 letter. “But your Twitter takeover, rapid and haphazard imposition of platform changes, removal of safeguards against disinformation and firing of large numbers of Twitter employees have accelerated Twitter’s descent into the Wild West of social media.”
Earlier this month, Musk—who completed his $44 billion acquisition of Twitter at the end of October—said that he would begin charging users around $8 each month to receive the blue-check verification on the platform. Prior to Musk’s announcement, verification was largely reserved for politicians, companies, celebrities, journalists and other well-known figures to signify that the accounts belonged to them.
Markey asked Twitter to respond to questions about how it oversees its verification process to exclude imposters, saying that “Twitter and its leadership have a responsibility to the public to ensure the platform doesn’t become a breeding ground for manipulation and deceit.”
Verified Twitter accounts masquerading as companies have already caused financial repercussions, with the stock of Eli Lilly and Company falling by over 5% during morning trading on Friday, after a blue-checked account posing as the pharmaceutical giant tweeted that it would be giving out free insulin. The digital impersonation issues forced Twitter to pause its $7.99 per month verification subscription last week, a move that came less than two days after the service was launched.
Musk, however, took umbrage to Markey’s letter of concern about impersonation on Twitter, mockingly replying to the senator in a tweet on Sunday that implied that the false account was verified “because your real account sounds like a parody.”
“One of your companies is under [a Federal Trade Commission] consent decree,” Markey tweeted in response to Musk, referencing the FTC’s 2011 privacy order with Twitter. “Auto safety watchdog [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration] is investigating another for killing people. And you’re spending your time picking fights online.”
Musk-owned auto company, Tesla, is currently under investigation by NHTSA for crashes related to their vehicles’ autopilot feature.
Markey—a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees the FTC and NHTSA and previously brought in former Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey and other ‘Big Tech’ executives to testify about their platforms’ content moderation efforts —floated in his tweet that congressional action was on the table.
“Fix your companies,” Markey said. “Or Congress will.”