Why Does Twitter Verify Some Accounts?

Now that Elon Musk has completed a $44 billion buyout of Twitter, its blue profile badges, which indicate users are who they say they are, could come with a monthly fee, likely somewhere between $8 and $20 per month.

But why does that blue badge exist in the first place? It has a little to do with a 7-foot-1 basketball star and a lot to do with the murky world of online identity.

One of the first celebrities to be impersonated on Twitter was Shaquille O’Neal, who joined the platform in November 2008 and said he created an account in part because someone else had been impersonating him. At the time, a Twitter co-founder, Biz Stone, told The New York Times that the company was looking for a way to certify accounts and that the fake Shaq account was the first celebrity impersonation he had heard of on the website.

Fake accounts continued to proliferate on the site, including for the actor Ewan McGregor and the televangelist Robert H. Schuller. But in June 2009, the company announced a shift.

Mr. Stone wrote in a June 2009 blog post that Twitter was experimenting with “verified accounts.” In the blog post, he also clarified the company’s position in a lawsuit involving an impersonation account, prompting some people to give credit for the verification process to the man behind the lawsuit, Tony La Russa.

Mr. La Russa, then the manager of the St. Louis Cardinals, sued Twitter in May 2009 and said someone had registered an account with his name and was using it to post offensive comments, causing him emotional distress. The comments seemed to make light of the deaths of two Cardinals players, Josh Hancock and Darryl Kile.

Early that June, several newspapers reported that the lawsuit was settled, which Mr. Stone denied in the June blog post. Mr. Stone said at the time that Twitter suspended, deleted or transferred control of accounts that were known to impersonate people, including the account that appeared to be owned by Mr. La Russa.

“We do recognize an opportunity to improve Twitter user experience and clear up confusion beyond simply removing impersonation accounts once alerted,” Mr. Stone said in the blog post.

He then explained the “verified accounts” experiment, saying it would begin with people at risk of impersonation, including celebrities, politicians and public agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It did not include businesses, unlike now.

In those early days, the symbol that indicated an account was verified looked essentially the same as it does today: a white check mark in a blue badge. Mr. Stone called it a “verification seal.”

By the end of June 2009, Mr. La Russa had ended his lawsuit. He is active on Twitter, where he mostly promotes his animal rescue foundation and comments on baseball. Mr. La Russa stepped down as manager of the Chicago White Sox last month to deal with health issues.

In the more than 13 years since the blue check mark badge was introduced, it has proved to be fallible.

In August 2021, the agent for Cormac McCarthy, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author, said that a verified account in the author’s name, which shared musings about kombucha and TikTok, was not his.

In November 2019, Twitter criticized the Conservative Party in Britain for “attempts to mislead people” after the party temporarily changed the name of “CCHQPress,” one of its verified accounts, to “factcheckUK” during an election debate. Two years earlier, Twitter temporarily halted its verification program after it verified an account belonging to a prominent white supremacist and was criticized by people who saw that as an endorsement.

In recent years, people have complained about not being verified and about being confused about how the process works. In May 2021, Twitter made the process easier by allowing users to apply to be verified.

If Mr. Musk has his way, the ambiguities of this system could soon be clarified with cold hard cash.